Fish — discard it or change the name?

Published on
April 29, 2014

Three years ago, the U.K. government-funded “Fishing for the Markets” study set out to find new ways of getting more of the unfamiliar and less-popular fish caught by English trawlers to market.

The study found that many species were discarded because few people wanted to eat them, although they were often perfectly edible and tasty. It also noted many examples of previously underutilized fish that have been successfully brought to market, including coley/saithe, pollock, grey mullet, megrim, squid and monkfish.

With a discard ban already in place in Europe for pelagic species and imminent for whitefish, the findings from the report have now gained new relevance.  

Part of the study included interviews with around 100 key people from the fishing, fish production distribution, retailing and foodservice industries, to find out their views on seafood.   

Many cited celebrity chef promotion and/or the effort of a small number of entrepreneurs with such success.

“Delia Smith (a famous U.K. cook) only had to mention monkfish and the very next day everyone was asking for some,” a fishmonger was quoted as saying.  “There was a massive upsurge in demand for dab as a result of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s ‘Fish Fight’,” said one fishing agent.

Leading fishmongers and fish-fryers with a recognized passion for seafood were also seen as influential in helping to stimulate market demand.   Independent fishmongers were noted as a good source of information on which fish to buy, the quality of seafood and how best to prepare and cook it, but we need more of these.   

A great deal of U.K. seafood is now bought at the supermarket fish counter, and while these are improving, the quality of service in many stores leaves a lot to be desired, and the choices are limited. This means that that the average consumer is only exposed to a few key species, which are not always in the best condition.

Overall volumes of wild seafood have reached their peak, so why are we not doing more to encourage human consumption of species other than the “big 5” — cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns? The answer is that consumers like familiarity and are very slow to change their habits, with the result that early next year, there could be many species on the market which are not selling at their real potential.

Once the new landing regulations have been agreed with government, there is an urgent need for fish sellers and processors to liaise with producer organizations, to think about forward strategy. Quick fixes to this situation are unlikely, as new product development to make something more palatable to consumers can take several years. It will be interesting to look back in ten years’ time to see how we managed the new discard ban, and to see if consumer habits have changed at all.

In the meantime, if we are to persuade people to eat new species, the report found evidence that unfamiliar names can put consumers off buying fish. Several species have already been renamed to make them more attractive, including megrim that sells better when it is labeled as Torbay sole, while imported pangasius has been renamed by one retailer as river cobbler.

One strong theme that emerged from the study was the need for businesses to be confident that they are handling and processing fish that has been sourced from sustainable fisheries. Such a requirement is explicit in large retailers’ corporate policies, but many small suppliers look to NGOs for information and guidance on sustainable fisheries and responsible capture methods.

The study showed that despite considerable effort and resources being expended on certification schemes and promotion, many chefs and consumers do not have a good understanding of the issues of sustainability. It also had no answer to the question, “what happens if the underutilized species becomes popular, then joins the ranks of overexploited species?” Will we then have to re-educate people to go back to cod?

Educating people about cooking and eating fish was mentioned by many interviewees as a long-term strategy for changing the public’s attitude towards eating a wider variety of fish species and to eating more fish “on the bone.” Teaching children in school about cooking and eating fish was seen as an essential tactic and it is heartening to see that national programs run by the Billingsgate Seafood School, Marine Stewardship Council, Seafish and Seafood in Schools in Scotland, are tackling this well.  

Retailers such as Sainsbury’s are doing their part by having an annual “Switch the Fish” day, to encourage the U.K. public to try less well-known species. This year they gave away a massive seven metric tons of fish, with shoppers receiving a free portion of something different with every purchase.

This is a great example by Sainsbury’s, but the species chosen to give away were lemon sole, mussels, sea bass, coley fillets and rainbow trout. These are not exactly unknown and none of them appear in the top 10 list of discarded fish, so we are going to need a lot more effort by many others if we are to make any headway with the great British public.
Perhaps we need a public campaign to find more appetizing names for gurnard, dabs, bib and dogfish.

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