It’s the end to fish and chips as British consumers know it. Severe over-fishing and wasteful EU regulations are decimating stocks of cod and its companion swimmers haddock and hake, to the point where the British fastfood staple is close to extinction. Or so it’s said. Clare Harman found out more.

Media reports have bombarded the public with apocalyptic visions of the fishing industry for months now, but a new organisation is committed to focusing on the positives of the British fishing industry. However, since its inauguration last September, the Frozen at Sea Fillets Association (FASFA) has been distracted from promoting the many nutritional benefits and versatility of cod by a more pressing task. The Association’s number one job is to convince members of the public and the processing industry that cod supplies even exist.

Battered stocks

Inaugurated after industry discussions on 5 September last year, FASFA’s prime objective at that time was to market the commodity as high-quality, consistently available food. In a time of plentiful stocks, the main selling point for cod was its low price, but FASFA sought to reinvent the fish with an emphasis on high nutritional value, and the fact it is sourced from well-managed fishing grounds. The association boasts 25 members, which represent Norwegian, Russian, British, Icelandic and Faeroes importers and filleter-vessel owners. All its members freeze cod within four hours of it being caught.

Cod is big business in the UK, with a first hand value of around £100m. It employs 80,000 people in approximately 8,300 fish and chip shops (down considerably from a peak of 20,000 shops in 1980 as ethnic fastfood options rose to prominence). The ancillary industries (for example, fats, distribution) provide jobs for a further 70,000 people. There remains a strong regional difference in the availability of fish species, but overall cod accounts for 60% of the some 175 million fish ‘n’ chip meals sold every year. Incidentally, this figure is 13 million higher than that of burger meals.

Little wonder then at the panic caused by press reports last year that the mounting pressures on the fishing industry are now virtually insurmountable. Last July, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) wrote: “One of the UK’s best-loved dishes may soon need to be added to the endangered list.” In response, FASFA’s message is a resounding, ‘Let’s be sensible. UK cod supplies are not endangered. But they might be in the future if action is not taken to support the stocks and the fishing industry today.’

No more cod ‘n’ chips? A fishy tale…

“Cod is very plentiful provided it is looked after properly” insists FASFA chairman Tim Vernon, pointing out that FASFA is anxious to rid the industry of the falling consumer confidence prompted when the public believes it is eating an endangered species. “The vast majority of cod eaten in Britain is frozen at sea fish caught in the well managed waters of the Barents Sea and the Arctic Seas around Iceland and Norway,” explains Vernon. In fact, around 80 percent of the cod landed in Britain is sourced from these areas.

So the cod problem is firmly in the North Sea. “Cod stocks in the North Sea are declining and regulation is necessary to protect and regenerate stocks,” continues Vernon. “People should continue to eat Fish ‘n’ Chips safe in the knowledge that they are not endangering cod, and in fact they are protecting the many jobs that are inextricably linked to it. The supply of fish caught by FASFA members and frozen at sea is sustainable and renewable and subject to some of the most stringent conservation strategies.”

North Sea problems

The media reports of declining stocks are not altogether negative for the industry: creating increased awareness of conservation and sustainability in fishing can only be a good thing in the long term. This fits in very well with the current economic and agricultural climate, with its debates over traceability in food supplies, organic farming methods and the harvesting of sustainable supplies of farmed, rather than wild, animals. So what about conservation strategies in the North Sea? What exactly are governments doing to protect the endangered fish stocks in the gulf between the UK and Europe? Several aspects of the fishing industry need to be addressed if stocks are to be recovered and maintained.

Sustainable quota setting

The president of the International Conference for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), Professor Jacob Jacobsson, has stressed the need for sustainable fishing practice. Jacobsson points out that towards the end of the 1960s, Iceland saw its previously abundant stocks collapse. It took 25 years for the government to pull the industry out of the difficulties experienced then and now less than 25% of the stock is harvested in any year, a quota limit that has produced good results and which Jacobsson believes could be imported as a solution to the North Sea stocks.

Supermarkets in moral maze

Supermarkets, often blamed for subjecting cod stocks and prices to increased pressure, have worked to promote consumer interest in cod alternatives. UK chain Sainsbury’s enlisted the charms of TV chef Jamie Oliver among others to spread the word that its shelves will be filled with sustainable South African varieties of kob, panger and kingclip in a bid to relieve the pressure on native cod stocks. The move left the retailer in a moral maze however, as The Marine Stewardship Council pointed out that some species of kob from the same area have collapsed because of over-exploitation in that part of the world.

From the WWF, Anthony Field told The Daily Telegraph: “Instead of going to the far flung corners of the world, fishery management should be sustainable in British waters and that means changing the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.” According to published figures quoted by the WWF, well-managed fisheries could potentially be over 1,500% more profitable if fish stocks were allowed to recover.i

Common Fisheries Policy

The Common Fisheries Policy has been the source of grievances from many countries. Ireland, for example, has criticised the “might is right” bias of quota size towards larger countries. Fishermen argue that the policy is wasteful as they are forced to throw non-quota stock overboard, even if it is already dead or injured beyond viability. Enforcement is also a problem, as industrial fishing continues virtually unabated. On the 15th December, the EU set strict fishing quotas, and this week officials revealed that these could go even further with regard to the type of fishing gear used. But this is only part of the issue.

As part of its Oceans Recovery Campaign, last December the WWF published a report, Choose or lose: a recovery plan for fish stocks and the UK fishing industry. In the report it advocated increased treasury investment in recovery plans for the two thirds of North-east Atlantic commercially exploited fish stocks that it argues are beyond their safe biological limit. “All the ingredients are there to step out of the vicious circle of decline,” stressed Matthew Davies, director of the campaign.

The WWF is calling for the establishment of Fishing Free Zones (FFZ) and has pointed out the inadequacies in the EC proposals, stressing the need to envisage five, or ten-year targets when it comes to recuperating fish stocks. UK fishermen last January also proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), strategic closures of critical cod spawning and nursery grounds across the breadth of the North Sea, not just in one part of it. Other technical measures can be introduced, such as an increase in mesh sizes.

Back on the menu

In the meantime, the focus for FASFA remains staunchly on boosting cod consumption. Hand in hand with the positive marketing and consumer reassurance comes a new Quality Mark, which Vernon explains is designed to “bring differing standards together under one easily identifiable mark that will communicate the product’s quality […] with the ongoing aim of raising standards year on year.” The mark will act as a guarantee of sustainable fishing practice, grading, hygiene, traceability and presentation.

As long as the governments introduce the policies to let North Sea stocks recover, fishermen still harvest cod from well managed fisheries elsewhere, and FASFA boosts consumer confidence in terms of quality and quantity of cod available, our staple culinary fare may be taken off that endangered list. And put straight back on the menu.

i This figure comes from the WWF news article “Are fishermen an endangered species?” This can be found at:

Relevant Reports

Fish & Fish Products – UK focus

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Canned Fish

The 2000-2005 World Outlook for Fish