Europe year in review

Published on
December 30, 2013

Economically, 2013 can be regarded as the year that Europe turned the corner with a number of countries starting to shrug off their financial woes and looking forward with renewed optimism. While it’s perhaps still too early for these recoveries to affect consumer spending, it was still a busy and exciting year for Europe’s seafood industry. So as the year draws to a close, let’s take a look back at 10 stories that helped shape the sector over the past 12 months.

•    Warmwater shrimp are extremely popular in Europe but the market’s love of the product was put to the test by soaring prices in 2013. These heavily inflated prices were mostly due to the outbreak of early mortality syndrome or acute hepatopancreatic necrosis (EMS/AHPN) across the key production areas of China, Vietnam and Thailand. Asia is expected to produce just 2.8 million metric tons (MT) this year, down 16 percent compared with 2011 with the largest production declines expected in Thailand (down 48 percent compared with 2011), Vietnam (down 43 percent) and China (down 26 percent). Prices were deemed to be too high even for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who decided to pull shrimp from the menu at his Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain in October. Though global shrimp production should recover and grow at an average rate of 6.9 percent in 2014 and 2015, James Anderson, head of the global program on fisheries and aquaculture for the World Bank, told the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) GOAL conference in Paris that the global output in 2015 will still be 4 percent lower than production in 2011 when it reached 3.9 million MT.

•    Staying with shrimp and TV chefs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (HFW) returned to TV screens in February with an exposé on the use of so-called “trash fish” in cheap shrimp feeds in his “Fish Fight: Save Our Seas” series. HFW visited Thailand, the world’s No. 1 shrimp-producing nation, to establish what Brits’ favorite shellfish, “king prawns,” were being grown on and found that 25 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s marine catch ends up being turned into fishmeal and a lot of the trash fish-based feed was being supplied to shrimp farmers. To heap pressure on the shrimp industry, HFW urged viewers to Tweet the message “What are your prawns eating?” to U.K. retailers’ Twitter accounts and 40,000 people duly obliged. As a result, four months on from the documentary, seven of the biggest food grocers in the country pledged to work with suppliers and NGOs to address the challenges of sourcing fish feed derived from responsibly managed fisheries.

•    The Irish Sea Fisheries Board, An Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), announced there would be a radical overhaul of the country’s seafood industry aimed at helping it become more competitive in terms of exports, particularly in new markets. The strategy dovetails with the Irish government’s Food Harvest 2020 program, which states it’s within the reach of its seafood industry to generate sales of EUR 1 billion (USD 1.4 billion) by 2020, up from its current level of EUR 822 million (USD 1.1 billion). While there is considerable optimism about opportunities overseas and Asia is earmarked as a lucrative export target, BIM also believes there’s plenty of scope to grow the home market, which comprises 4.7 million people who collectively spend EUR 320 million (USD 442 million) per annum on seafood. Ireland’s seafood category enjoyed outperformed poultry, beef and pork in 2012 with total sales up 5.2 percent last year, including a 7.6 percent increase in fresh fish and a 1.7 percent increase in frozen fish sales. The only sector that saw any decline was the ready-to-eat fish category, with sales dropping 5.5 percent. Ireland’s per-capita consumption is now in the region of 17kg and growing.

•    Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), Europe’s favorite whitefish, was available in unprecedented volumes this year thanks to massive quota increases in the two largest market-supplying fisheries, Iceland and the Barents Sea. But while the increased supplies were a pat on the back for sound management practices, the significantly greater catch saw European cod prices tumble to lows not seen for several years. At the same time, sales of other products in the fish category were affected. The French market, in particular, ramped up its imports of fresh cod, mainly from Norway. However, the flip side was that it imported significantly less Norwegian farmed salmon in 2013. France is the No. 1 market for Norwegian salmon but the market has reacted to the soaring price of the product in the past year with importers saying that the year-on-year increase of between 35 and 40 percent is simply too much to stomach. Producers say salmon prices have increased as a direct result of the reduced supply in 2013. In the first 11 months of the year, Norwegian producers exported 870,000 MT of salmon products, which was 35,000 MT less than in the corresponding period of 2012. Meanwhile, Scotland, which is Europe’s main salmon producing country, was forecast to produce 152,000 MT of products in 2013, which is 10,000 MT less than in 2012. Looking ahead, the 2014 bilateral Barents Sea cod quota has been set at 993,000 MT, which is 7,000 MT lower than in 2013. Based on current cod prices, the first hand value of this catch will be NOK 15 billion (USD 2.4 billion, EUR 1.8 billion).

•    In January, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) downgraded mackerel from its list of fish suitable to eat saying that international arguments about quotas in the Northeast Atlantic (NEA) meant it was no longer a sustainable choice. However, the MCS revised the controversial move in May with an updated set of ratings that the NGO felt better reflected the damaging effect the catch share stand-off is having on the stock. With the Faroe Islands and Iceland continuing to set mackerel quotas outside of international agreements and scientific advice, the MCS elected to separate out the fisheries to encourage consumers to source the most sustainable mackerel — fish caught by the EU and Norway. This was the first time the fisheries have been rated on their own merits. As a result of the reclassification, fish caught by the EU and Norwegian fleets were upgraded from an MCS “Fish to Eat” rating of 4 (orange) to MCS 3 (yellow), which advises “fish to eat with caution.” At the same time, the traditional and highly sustainable Southwest U.K. handline fishery now qualifies as a “good choice” through its new rating of 2 (green). As 2013 came to a close, there was no breakthrough anticipated in the NEA catch share negotiations despite the threat of trade sanctions.

•    The launch of the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) in August was hailed as something of a game changer for the aquaculture industry. GSI was formed by 15 founding members from six countries that together account for around 70 percent of the global farmed salmon production and its primary aim is to address environmental and social issues related to salmon farming throughout the world by sharing the advanced technical know-how that exists within the most developed companies with producers who are not yet at that level of sophistication. GSI members are targeting three priority problems facing the industry: biosecurity, meeting industry standards and responsible and sustainable feed sourcing. While only four months old, the GSI is regarded by international organizations involved in solving sustainable food production issues as an example for the broader food industry to follow. It’s also hoped other fish farming sectors will come together to adopt similar initiatives.

•    In December, the European Commission announced it would fine four European North Sea shrimp traders a total of EUR 28.7 million (USD 39.6 million) for operating a cartel in breach of EU antitrust rules. The companies — Heiploeg, Klaas Puul, Kok Seafood (all of the Netherlands) and Stuhrk (of Germany), have a combined European market share of around 80 percent. It was discovered that between June 2000 and January 2009, Heiploeg and Klaas Puul agreed to fix prices and share sales volumes of North Sea shrimp in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Kok Seafood participated at least from February 2005 while Stuhrk was involved in price fixing in Germany from March 2003 to November 2007. The purpose of the cartel was to freeze the market by stabilizing the suppliers' market shares in order to facilitate price increases and stimulate profitability. Klaas Puul received full immunity from any fines under the Commission's 2006 Leniency Notice, because it was the first company to provide information about the cartel. Meanwhile, Heiploeg was fined EUR 27 million (USD 37.3 million), Stuhrk, EUR 1.13 million (USD 1.56 million) and Kok Seafood EUR 502,000 (USD 693,296). Heiploeg has said it will file an appeal against the fine.

•    Unearthed way back in January, the pan-European horsemeat scandal is arguably the biggest story to come out of the food industry in recent years. As a result of horse DNA being discovered in several readymeal products, many consumers across Europe, Scandinavia and Russia stopped purchasing processed meat products and ready-to-eat meals containing meat, particularly frozen meals. Consumer confidence in retailers plummeted and the mainstream media was all over the issue, trying to find the next major food scandal. Inevitably, the seafood sector became a big target and the Daily Mail, one of the United Kingdom’s most widely-read newspapers first put scampi – deep-fried pieces of langoustine tail — in the spotlight, claiming that one in five scampi products contain pangasius. The paper estimated Brits consume GBP 50 million (USD 82.6million, EUR 59.8 million) worth of scampi every year but suggested they were totally oblivious to the con that some of the cheaper products contain as little as 7 percent langoustine and that they are all bulked out with pangasius, hake, pollock and other white fish. The same newspaper then returned to attack the seafood industry with claims that some U.K. supermarkets’ fresh fish were in fact almost three weeks old. Fortunately, neither story could outrage consumers anywhere near the level achieved by “horsegate,” as it has become widely known.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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