Cod farming industry in flux

Published on
July 30, 2009

Europe's cod farming industry is in a state of flux, marred by poor prices, a drop in production and a lack of confidence on the stock market.

However, its supporters remain confident that the problems currently hindering the industry can be solved. These include disease, predation, biological challenges at first feeding and high production costs, all of which make farmed cod uncompetitive with its wild counterpart.

Cod is currently farmed in Norway, and to a limited extent in Iceland. The highly publicised company No Catch, which represented Scotland's industry, went out of business two years ago with GBP 40 million (USD 66.2 million, EUR 46.7 million) in debt.

Cod farming is relatively new on the scene. It was thought in its early stages to be a substitute for the declining wild catch in the North Sea, which dropped from around 1 million metric tons in 1998 to 720,000 metric tons by 2008. In the same period, volumes of farmed cod rose from a few hundred metric tons to just 12,000 metric tons, leaving plenty of room for growth.

Cod has long been an important fish for Norway, but a year-on-year reduction in first sale value and volume in 2008, resulted in a drop of NOK 617 million (USD 100 million, EUR 70 million), to just under NOK 10 billion (USD 1.6 billion, EUR 1.2 billion). Total cod exports were valued at NOK 5.5 billion (USD 900,000 million, EUR 628,000), of which farmed cod accounted for NOK 216 million (USD 34.8 million, EUR 24.7 million).  The largest customer for farmed cod was Denmark, which imported 2265 metric tons, followed by France at 1,285 metric tons.

The value of farmed cod in Norway has ranged between NOK 30 to 40 per kilogram for whole fish and NOK 64 to 80 for fillets over the past two years and is currently at the lower end of that scale.

Codfarmers is the largest player in Norway and in it for the long term, according to Chairman Harald Dahl. His company is one of five that will share NOK 155 million (USD 24.9 million, EUR 17.7 million) in loans from Innovation Norway to help with further developments.  

Industry is grateful that cod farming still retains strong support from the Norwegian government and takes comfort from the fact that salmon farming took years to develop. But with problems ongoing in the salmon world, perhaps such a comparison is not productive.

In Iceland, HB Grandi recently announced that it is moving forward with its cod farming project and aims to increase production over the next few years. The company harvested around 50 metric tons in December and January, which found a good market in Europe. According to Production Manager Thröstur Reynisson, the fish were smaller than expected at around 2 kilograms, but processing had gone well and a large consignment of fresh loins was sent to the Belgian market.

European retailers and chefs, anxious to be viewed as sustainable, have no qualms about buying farmed cod, seeing price as its only drawback in these recessionary times. Deutsche See in Germany and Migros in Switzerland's favor farmed cod from Norway, while UK retailers were quick to snap up Scottish farmed cod when it was available.

Chefs also love the product, finding the meat of farmed cod firmer and whiter than wild cod, perhaps because it has not spent time in a trawl. In France, fared cod is sold in a chain of brassieres owned by Paul Bocuse, the acclaimed king of French cuisine.

Cod farming is actively supported by World Wildlife Fund as a highly efficient means of producing fish, provided it is sustainable and does not harm the environment.

"We initiated a series of aquaculture dialogues to provide sustainable standards for fish farming and may consider one for cod if production increases," said Piers Hunt, WWF's UK aquaculture policy officer.

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