The coronavirus outbreak has hit British fishers with a “very severe shock” as demand from export markets and the domestic restaurant trade has dried up.
The UK exports about 70% of its catch to Europe and Asia but imports most of what British consumers eat. Fishing leaders said catches of normally expensive seafood such as Dover sole and lobster may now end up in fishmongers at bargain prices.
The crews running the 2,500 boats that fish in inshore waters are self-employed, making them especially vulnerable, and they support five times as many jobs onshore. While no one wants the shutdown to continue, scientists said a pause in fishing could result in a recovery of marine life numbers.
“It may be a temporary crisis but it is a very severe shock,” said Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations. He said China has become a big market for UK crab in recent years. “Some parts of the fleet have become very dependent on that, and that was the first to go, with a very dramatic fall in demand.”
“You have these prime species that tend to go across to the continent, like Dover sole, lobster and crab, high value species that also go to the [UK] restaurant trade,” he said. “For [British] people who find Dover sole too expensive at the fishmonger, this would be a good time to try it. There will be bargains. I’m not saying the scale of it would be a substitute for what is exported, but we are looking for silver linings here.”
However, not all of the catch is likely to be palatable to British consumers, such as the large whelk catch that normally goes to South Korea. “We do tend to be quite conservative, so maybe a leap from haddock or cod to whelks is a big one,” said Deas.
Jamie McMillan, the managing director of Loch Fyne Langoustines and Loch Fyne Seafarms, which processes and exports scallops, lobster and crab, said: “Spain has closed and France is about to close its markets.” The company’s trade went from 3,000 shells on 9 March to zero on Tuesday.
“If it continues, we’re going to have to tell our fishermen to stop fishing,” he said. “They don’t get paid if they don’t fish and they have young families to feed.” Another fisher, Benji Solway, said on Facebook: “The UK fishing industry is on the brink of an imminent collapse. The government must step in and help us all now before it’s too late.” The chancellor ,Rishi Sunak, announced financial measures to help small businesses on Tuesday.
Bryce Beukers-Stewart, a fisheries expert at the University of York said: “A lot of people say ‘we have got all this bountiful seafood on our doorstep, why don’t we eat it?’ But it is largely because British taste in seafood is quite conservative. It is fixed on five key groups: cod, haddock, salmon, prawns and tuna.”
“We have all these other things, like cuttlefish, whelks, monkfish and megrim sole, all excellent seafood, that we may well eat when we are on holiday in Spain or Portugal, but we don’t seem to want to eat it here,” he said. “Maybe this will be the switch.”
Beukers-Stewart said a reduction in fishing could help populations to increase. “In an extreme scenario, which I do not wish on the fishing industry, we could see some dramatic reductions in fishing activity and as a result, recovery of stocks,” he said, noting that dramatic recoveries were seen after the second world war. However, Deas said stocks were already being managed “reasonably well”.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are talking to a wide range of representatives from the fishing and seafood industries and will work closely with them over the coming days and weeks.”
About 95% of cod in UK fish and chip shops is imported frozen from Norway and Iceland, with much of UK-caught cod sold fresh at a premium to the continent in normal times. Similarly, much of the Scottish salmon produced is sold in the US, while UK consumers eat Norwegian salmon.
“The coronavirus is not just affecting the UK, as seafood is one the most globally traded commodities,” said Beukers-Stewart. “You know [this interlinked world trade] is fragile, but to see it unravel like this is quite frightening.”
Coronavirus: ‘severe shock’ to UK fishing as markets dry up – The Guardian