The power of convenience

Published on
February 20, 2011

The recent Fish Fight campaign in the United Kingdom, which persuaded consumers to be more aware of the seafood they eat and to make more use of locally landed fish and shellfish, has had a lasting effect on sales of some species. Demand for mussels in particular is still well above the norm, and retailers and wholesalers report continued requests for pollock, coley, bass and John Dory, instead of the staples like cod and haddock.

Getting hold of locally landed seafood is not always as simple as it might appear. The main species landed in my local port is langoustine (Nephrops norvegicus), but the majority are whisked away to continental Europe, where consumers are willing to pay a much higher price.

Instead, we are spoiled for choice with a selection of frozen, imported freshwater prawns, which cannot match their saltwater cousins in texture or flavour. I find it vexing that I can buy live langoustine at the Boqueria, the large public fresh produce market in the centre of Barcelona, Spain, but not in the west coast of Scotland where I live.

Scotland lands the world’s largest share of langoustine, and it is the country’s second most valuable stock —31,500 metric tons worth GBP 78.3 million were landed in 2009, and the estimate for 2010 is similar. Around 10 percent of the fishery is carried out using creels, while the remainder is caught in a traditional trawl fishery.

Creel-caught langoustine kept live on board small day boats and packed in individual tubes are the best quality and fetch the highest price. These boats often land to remote quays, to be met by refrigerated vans that transfer the catch to vivier lorries for onward transport to market.

Trawled langoustine may be landed daily from small vessels or chilled/frozen onboard larger trip boats. Small langoustine may be tailed onboard or in processing units and are used for the UK breaded scampi market. Discarded heads generally end up as compost, as there is no traditional fish soup market in the UK, and the cost of transporting them to France is uneconomical.

In 2010, more than 20,000 metric tons of langoustines worth GBP 117 million were exported, 87 percent of which went to Spain, France and Italy. Here they sell live for between EUR 30 and EUR 90 per kilogram, depending on the size, quality, time of year and demand. Creel fishermen receive just a small fraction of the ultimate selling price; transportation and logistics account for another fraction, leaving the vendor with a healthy profit margin.

Whole langoustines on UK restaurant menus always fetch top dollar, selling for GBP 2 to 3 each, making them expensive compared with imported shrimp. Scampi on the other hand, which is breaded whole or reformed langoustine tails, is a major seller. The key point here is that they are seen as a convenience food, in much the same way as a prepared bag of warmwater shrimp.

Several UK retailers have added chilled or frozen whole langoustine to their range, but with varying success. According to Seafish, year-on-year sales of this product rose by just 0.5 percent to 36 metric tons through January. Market penetration at retail level remains decidedly poor in the UK, with consumers uncertain how to tackle a whole animal.

Conversely, the scale of the imported competition is vast. Through December, total imports into the UK of all categories of shrimp and prawn amounted to around 86,000 metric tons, worth GBP 431.8 million. This includes product reimported following processing. The top export countries were Thailand at GBP 91.6 million, Indonesia at GBP 43.7 million and India at GBP 43 million. These imports reach our baskets or plates in ready-to-eat form, at a much lower price than home-grown langoustine.

This highlights the power of convenience. After all, there isn’t a petrol station in the UK where you can’t buy a prawn sandwich, but you can’t get a bucket of langoustines in the town where they are landed. Plainly, the UK industry has a lot of product-development, marketing and consumer-education work to do if we’re ever to benefit from the finfish and shellfish harvested close to home.

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