What's next for the U.K. shellfish industry?

Published on
June 1, 2015

The United Kingdom’s shellfish industry produces around 153,000 metric tons (MT) of products or 25 percent of the country’s overall catch. Currently worth GBP 266 million (EUR 373.3 million; USD 406.5 million), this represents 37 percent of the total value generated by the country’s fisheries. While output volumes have barely changed in the past 10 years, the sector now finds itself facing a number of increasingly difficult challenges.

Reflecting on the importance of the U.K. shellfish industry, John Goodlad, managing director of Havsea Fisheries & Marine Consultancy Ltd. and senior fisheries advisor to the Price of Wales International Sustainability Unit, told delegates in his keynote address at the recent Shellfish Association of Great Britain’s (SAGB’s) 46th Annual Conference in London that there have been a few “megatrends” in the industry in the past three decades, most notably the growth of nephrops in the 1990s and the more recent rise of the scallop fishery.

In fact, while an increasing proportion of U.K. shellfish is being farmed, the three core wild-caught species of scallops, crabs and nephrops still account for approximately 75 percent of the industry’s haul, said Goodlad.

“It’s important to remind ourselves of the importance that shellfish has in the U.K. fishing industry,” he said. “Fiscally, shellfish characterizes individual fishing ports; there are activities in almost every fishing village in the U.K. Whereas the pelagic and whitefish sectors have become increasingly clustered in one or two ports and disappearing from everywhere else, that has not happened with shellfish and that has kept the fishing industry alive in those areas.”

Goodlad added that young fishermen find it very difficult to join the pelagic or whitefish industries because of their geographic concentration. Not so in the shellfish sector.

“The one area where entry is possible is shellfish and apart from nephrops, there’s no quotas,” he said. “So while shellfish is important in terms of value, it’s even more important as sector for young fishermen.”

Overregulation and NGOs
Despite its economic and social contributions, Goodlad outlined four key challenges that are likely to increasingly test the country’s shellfish industry over the next few years and potential opportunities to resolve them.

Beginning with overregulation, he said there “appears to be an insatiable pressure for regulation” from European decision makers and U.K. government.

“Of course regulation is necessary, but governments don’t always know best,” he said and cited the “misguided” Fish Fight campaign, led by campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, as an example of “where it can go wrong,” whereby rushed legislation led to the EU landing obligation “just because a celebrity chef says we need to stop discarding.”

He added, “The shellfish sector, together with the fishing industry, has to be so careful to avoid these mavericks.”

Goodlad believes the most successful regulations are devised and managed locally, and reckons that the people fishing the stocks are best placed to take care of them. He also warned that if this didn’t happen then the only alternative would be management “by the dead hand of government.”

The second challenge is the influence of NGOs in the shellfish sector. Goodlad told delegates that these groups have an important role to play, as do scientists and government bodies, but it’s crucial that the shellfish industry is seen to be the main stakeholder in all discussions because it is likely to suffer the most from any decision making.

He suggested that accreditation to recognized certification schemes like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and the Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) could be an “enormously helpful tool” that would alleviate NGO pressure and potentially bring other benefits to the shellfish industry.

“Whether it will lead to better prices remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t, it will give better market access,” he said. Although he also cautioned that the shellfish industry could find it a very costly undertaking.

He said that in the case of the Scottish pelagic sector, MSC certification costs around GBP 50,000 (EUR 70,196; USD 76,399) per year, which is manageable when factoring in the large volumes involved, but for the shellfish fisheries of just a few hundred tons, tens of thousands of pounds would be a significant outlay.

“That’s a real challenge for the likes of the MSC – being within financial reach of those small fisheries that want to achieve certification.”

Maximizing potential
The next challenge is the “inevitable competition” for space between fishing and aquaculture, and Goodlad gave scallop farming as an example of an emerging business that could become viable and profitable in U.K. waters. However, with good spatial planning from local management, he felt confident fishing and farming shellfish could become complementary.

“I would like to think that they would not waste time and effort fighting each other,” he said.

Goodlad sees the last main challenge being sales and marketing. He suggested that certification, quality assurance and marketing could help the industry achieve the best prices.

“Fishing is a business, but ultimately it’s the consumer that pays the price for the products. For shellfish that often happens outside the U.K. But it is essential to ensure the top price is paid. And the higher the price, the greater the value that will cascade down through the supply chain.”

In order to deal with all these challenges and to explore some of the industry’s opportunities, Goodlad has proposed creating a “single go-to” national shellfish body that can provide support to the industry, communicate with all stakeholders in the supply chain and lobby government. He revealed that he is currently working alongside the SAGB to gauge the feasibility of creating such an organization.

“I think there is an opportunity,” he said. “It’s a very challenging time, but it’s a time of enormous opportunity. I’m hoping that this time next year some progress will be made.”

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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