Europeans are eating more fish, mostly thanks to one species

Europeans eat a lot of seafood, and with a recent surge in its popularity and availability, cod is once again the continent’s fish of choice.

In terms of value, the European Union is the world’s largest trader of fishery and aquaculture products in the world, with last year’s commerce flow amounting to EUR 49.3 billion (USD 56.3 billion), up from EUR 45.9 billion (USD 52.4 billion) in 2014. While the money involved increased significantly, the volume traded remained the same at 13.8 million metric tons (MT). These totals comprise E.U. imports, exports and intra-E.U. trades.

Meanwhile, E.U. seafood consumption has reversed a recent declining trend, increasing by 3.6 percent to 24.7 kg per capita and is expected to continue on this trajectory this year. Household expenditure is now in excess of EUR 55 million (USD 62.8 million) – the highest level on record.

“Compared with a lot of continents, the E.U. is eating a lot of whitefish; the ratios in Asia, Africa and South America are much more balanced between species,” said Xavier Guillou from the European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products (EUMOFA). “But because of its policies and commitment to sustainable fishing, we cannot sustain all of our needs with our own production, so we are importing a lot of our whitefish.”

EUMOFA estimates that if the E.U. were to eat all the seafood it produced, less than 45 percent of its need would be covered. This has been the case since the early 2000s and has been the result of declining whitefish fishery production in E.U. waters.

In 2013, cod again became the most consumed species in the E.U., mostly due to an 18 percent increase in imports, said Guillou.

“What we have seen in recent months is that cod is becoming even more important than before,” he said. “The reason is basically down to supply – there is much more cod available, not just in the E.U. but everywhere. The biggest stocks are being more productive and cod is being landed in bigger quantities, making it more accessible.

“Most of the increased fish consumption in the E.U. comes through the additional consumption of cod,” Guillou said. “For most of the rest of the species – the volume consumption is stable.”

Guillou said the strong demand for cod, as well as the high price of farmed salmon, have contributed to Norway firmly establishing itself as the leading supplier of seafood to the E.U. In fact, Norway’s exports (all products) to the EU has increased by more than 70 percent since 2009, and the overall trade is now valued at EUR 5.3 billion (USD 6.1 billion) annually.

“The growth of imports from Norway is quite impressive, in volume and value, increasing by five to 10 percent year-on-year for many years. It’s been successful getting into the big markets of France, Italy and Spain as well as the emerging markets in central Europe.” he said.

By comparison, China is the bloc’s second-biggest seafood supplier, with exports totaling EUR 1.5 billion (USD 1.7 billion) annually, mainly thanks to its role as a raw material processor, particularly whitefish. Next is Iceland, another major whitefish supplier, with exports to the EU of EUR 1.1 billion (USD 1.3 billion), followed by Ecuador and Vietnam with EUR 1 billion (USD 1.1 billion) each, mainly due to their respective shrimp trades.

While seafood exports from the E.U. have increased, amounting to EUR 4 billion (USD 4.6 billion) last year, the bloc’s dependence on external seafood supplies becomes greater each year, said Guillou.

According to EUMOFA, the trade balance deficit (exports minus imports) consistently reaches a new record level every year. For 2015, it increased by seven percent, or EUR 1 billion, to EUR 18 billion (USD 20.6 billion), which was mainly attributed to increased imports of frozen products over the 12-month period.

In value terms, EU imports of fish are now more than four times higher than all its meat imports combined, despite the latter reaching a 10-year high of EUR 4.2 billion (USD 4.8 billion) last year.

“To put that into some perspective, we import much more fish from Norway than we import meat from the rest of the world,” said Guillou.


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