Cooking up cod with a clear conscience

How do you convince someone that the fish they’re eating comes from a sustainably managed fishery? That’s the monumental problem facing both the UK fish and chip industry and suppliers to it.

So much has been said and written in the mainstream media about the fishing industry in recent years that many British consumers are now armed with a raft of misconceptions and half-truthes. Topping the pile is the assumption that the cod or haddock being sold in their local chippy comes from overfished North Sea stocks.

Last week, I accompanied the United Kingdom’s top 10 independent fish-and-chip takeaway restaurants — the finalists in the Seafish-organized National Fish & Chip Awards 2012 — on a trip to Aalesund, Norway, to look at the frozen-at-sea whitefish industry. This is where a lot of their cod and haddock is actually coming from.

These businesses are, without exception, fiercely proud of the products they serve each day. Apart from maintaining a large and loyal customerbase, the most important thing for them is sourcing a product that’s of a consistently high standard. This means, for nine out of 10 of the finalists, buying frozen-at-sea cod and/or haddock. And sustainability is an absolute must.

The Norwegian whitefish catching sector, of which Aalesund is regarded as the capital, does most of its fishing in the Barents Sea. In line with the healthy stocks therein, the cod quota shared by Norway and Russia in these waters will be 751,000 metric tons next year (an increase of 8 percent from this year), while the 2012 haddock quota has been set at 318,000 metric tons (an increase of 5 percent).

Click here to read this week’s market report on the global whitefish supply. 

Atle Vartdal, operations manager with Vartdal, which owns the factory trawler Ramoen, told SeafoodSource that there’s a huge abundance of North Atlantic cod, while the haddock now has the largest spawning stock on record.

“The fish up in the Barents Sea are in excellent shape and the fisheries are sustainably managed,” said Vartdal. “And by filleting and freezing at sea, we can deliver the high quality that the U.K. market demands.

“The product is usually processed and frozen within four hours of capture,” he said, adding that the United Kingdom is Vartdal’s main market.

In Aalesund, I learned a parallel exists between the fryers and the fishermen. While many chip shop owners are finding it extremely difficult to get customers to accept that the fish they are selling really does come from sustainable stocks (which is why it’s cooked from frozen), Norwegian factory vessel-owning companies like Vartdal are struggling, particularly in these austere times, to get onward supply chains to accept the higher price that comes with filleted, frozen-at-sea fish. 

“We believe in catching and processing onboard the same vessel. It gives superb quality when compared with fish processed onshore,” said Vartdal. “But we see a [growing] tendency whereby fish is only being headed and gutted onboard vessels then frozen, then sent from Europe to China for further processing before being frozen again and sent back to Europe. Yet double-frozen isn’t the same quality as single-frozen.”

The company’s sales manager, Katrine Florvaag, explained there are currently eight Norwegian factory vessels that fillet at sea but in one year’s time this number will probably be reduced to three or four as more buyers shift to the cheaper, double-frozen product.

“We need to charge a small premium to deliver the quality that you get in single-frozen,” she said.

This is where the Norwegian Seafood Export Council (NSEC) comes in as the generic marketing organization for Norway’s entire seafood industry. It has launched a two-year campaign in the United Kingdom that simultaneously targets trade and consumers with the intention of growing demand for Norwegian products, including Vartdal’s fish.

For NSEC Director Johan Kvalheim, the aim of the umbrella “Fisk.Forever” campaign is a simple one — “to educate the UK market that Norway is a sustainable choice when it comes to buying seafood, including market favourites like cod and haddock.”

Achieving this goal will of course be complicated. But as well as promoting the provenance and sustainability of Norwegian seafood to retailer, foodservice, hotel and catering sectors, it’s also targeting the British institution that is the chip shop.

It sees these businesses as a fast route to influencing the British public, so as well as hosting the chip shop finalists in Norway, NSEC is further ingratiating itself with the industry by giving every U.K. chippy the opportunity of winning one ton of Norwegian cod through a competition run on the website that encourages outlets to use point of sale marketing information.

How far such a ploy goes to eventually alleviating consumer concerns remains to be seen. Most of the chip shop owners that visited Aalesund already advertize where their fish comes from, but it’s clear that effectively communicating the reasons why they do this continues to be a big headache for them, yet the consensus among the finalists was that it’s a sourcing story that somehow needs to be told.


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