Asia top opportunity, plastic pollution biggest threat to UK shellfish sector

Published on
June 12, 2019

Marcus Coleman, the CEO of Seafish – the public body supporting the GBP 10 billion (USD 12.7 billion, EUR 11.3 billion) U.K. seafood industry – has been busy studying whether global seafood industry trends offer opportunities or threats for the United Kingdom’s shellfish supply chain.

In his recent presentation at the Shellfish Association of Great Britain annual conference, Coleman focused on the threat that plastic waste poses to the United Kingdom’s seafood industry.

Asia is set to be a hugely important market over the next 30 years, with an expected doubling in demand for meat and seafood to around 420 million metric tons (MT) per year, to satisfy the appetites of increasingly affluent Asian consumers, Coleman told SeafoodSource. By 2050, South Korea is forecast to have the highest per capita/per year seafood consumption in Asia, while China will remain as the largest market by volume.

Coleman described how the proportion of seafood consumed across Asia compared to other animal-based protein declined from the 1960s to the 1990s, but has since remained relatively constant. Seafood now makes up around 25 percent of protein consumption, meat accounts for 3 percent, and other animal protein makes up the remaining 40 percent. 

“In 2013, the 25 percent seafood share was around 52 million MT, but by 2050, that same share will equate to an estimated 105 million MT of seafood that needs to be sourced from around the world, and this means there are real opportunities for shellfish suppliers,” he said.  

The U.K. export market of shellfish to Asia is already strong, having grown by 5,000 MT between 2014 and 2018, and increased by GBP 54 million (USD 69 million, EUR 60.8 million) in value to reach GBP 110 million (USD 140 million, EUR 123.8 million).

Recent African swine fever (ASF) outbreaks in China may have opened up a new window for growth in Asia. Since its discovery in August 2018, ASF has spread to every province in mainland China. It has also crossed into Vietnam, with losses predicted to exceed 10 percent of production, and has entered Cambodia. Further spread and production losses are predicted. As a result, Chinese pork production is expected to shrink by up to 35 percent this year, a total that in itself is 30 percent larger than the entirety of annual pork production in the United States, and equivalent to Europe’s annual pork supply. Coleman said he has seen predictions from Rabobank that such a significant loss of protein production will lead to a major shift in worldwide trade patterns of animal proteins. 

While Asia represents an opportunity for the U.K.’s shellfish sector, plastics may represent its biggest threat. Coleman condemned the large volume of waste plastic created by today’s society, much of which ends up in the marine environment. Once it reaches the sea, plastic slowly degrades into microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics, which measure as little as a millionth of a millimeter in size.

“Research suggests that since the 1950s, 9 billion MT of plastics have been produced, creating 7 billion MT of waste. Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to degrade, and lost fishing gear even longer,” Coleman said. “The statistics are frightening: 40 percent of the plastic produced every year is single-use items, 80 percent of the plastic in the oceans comes from land-based use, and 90 percent of this flows out of 10 rivers in Asia. Plastic particles exist throughout the entire water column and have now been found in the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.” 

Nevertheless, Coleman fought back against recent coverage of the issue that has misrepresented the risks to human health microplastics present.

“Headlines such as ‘Seafood lovers eat 11,000 pieces of toxic plastic every year,’ and ‘Microplastics in our mussels: the sea is feeding human garbage back to us,’ are sensationalist, based on questionable information, and are a clear reputational risk for the industry,” Coleman said.

He explained that these particular headlines come from a much-quoted study that cites that older Belgians, who are the top mussel-eaters in Europe, and who have a per capita consumption of 72.1 grams per day, each ingest around 11,000 microplastic particles per year. More conservative estimates for U.K. consumers of mussels put the amount of microplastic particles ingested closer to 125 particles per person, per year.   

“If we compare this figure with a new study which suggests that we eat between 13,731 and 68,415 microplastic particles each year from house dust falling onto our dinner plates, in addition to exposure from drinking water, breathing air, or eating other foods, then the issue is seen in an entirely different light,” Coleman said. “Shellfish are a worrying target, as we eat the whole animal and little is known about the human health risks of small plastic particles. However, Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA) advises that there is no evidence of widespread risk to human health from these at present.”

In response to the microplastics threat, Seafish has just commissioned a study of current knowledge on the subject, with the aim of characterizing the risk, and publishing guidance on how businesses can mitigate that risk.

“It is important that Seafish has the facts, based on evidence, in order to provide a balanced view and to weight the microplastics issue appropriately," he said. "We will also be looking at what other food producers and governments are doing. This is just one of the many things we are doing to assess risk for seafood businesses, to forestall consumer avoidance and reputational risk.” 

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