Commodities & Futures: Fishing industry sails into storm over imports

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The Independent Online
INSTEAD of just being wrapped in newspaper, fish are making the news these days.

Rising cheap imports of white fish into the European Community, added to the pressures of conservation-related quotas and falling demand, have depressed EC prices by 30 per cent this year. Fishermen on both sides of the Channel have been up in arms.

British fishermen, stuck in port in November and December because they had exhausted their 1992 quotas, were prevented from going out in January by bad weather. When the weather improved they all rushed out, and the heavy catches they brought in are keeping prices down.

The French are especially upset. Last week, protesting French fishermen forced a British ferry carrying fish to divert to another port, because the devalued pound has made routine British imports cheap enough to undercut French-caught fish.

The fishing industry's anger has spurred Brussels into emergency action. To stem the tide of low- priced imports, the European Commission on Thursday set minimum prices for imported cod, haddock, saithe, hake and monkfish, to take effect in a few weeks and last until June.

White fish imports from Russia and northern Norway are the current object of British fishermen's wrath.

If the minimum prices do not steady the volatile market and curb the flow of imports, European Commission officials have suggested that an import embargo would be considered.

Judging from industry reactions, they may have to get tougher. Birds Eye, a big processor in Britain which uses imported fish, said on Friday: 'The proposed import price is in fact lower than the price normally and currently being paid at auction by the major producers, and the ruling will have no effect in this area.'

UK fishermen say that the recent situation is unusual. But disruption of some sort may become the norm for the modern-day fisherman, because of structural changes in the fishing industry and consumption, and long-term environmental concerns.

Over the past 10 years, EC fishing quotas have sought to protect the fish population and to allow stocks depleted by overfishing to rebuild. The UK industry has declined from 22,000 fishermen in 1960 to 16,000 today.

Fish used to seem like one of the most affordable foods around. But limits on the annual catch cut into supplies, so wholesalers and processors imported to meet their needs. Prices at the fishmongers and supermarkets climbed.

In response, many consumers in Britain have substituted cheaper meat and poultry for fish in their weekly shop. Though fish has benefited from increased awareness of its health benefits, overall consumption is down.

According to the Seafish Industry Authority in Edinburgh, UK fish consumption last year was 331,000 tonnes, down 5 per cent from 1991. The 190,000 tonnes eaten at home is a pounds 876m-a-year business, and we eat the remaining 141,000 tonnes in restaurants.

The UK's consumption of 19kg of fish per person per year is about average. The United States figure is similar. Japan leads the world at 74kg, Norwegians eat 46kg, and the French and Danes 25kg.

But Britain is higher in the league tables when it comes to processed fish. Sixty per cent of all the fish we consume is processed, with fish fingers the most popular category.

The processors, who will not like the minimum import prices set by Brussels, use as much as 85 per cent imported fish.

Fishermen believe Brussels' move is a first step towards normalising the market. But the dilemma still remains: how to conserve fish levels without putting fishermen out of business.

The Government's solution is to limit fishermen's days at sea, and to buy up and scrap pounds 8m worth of fishing boats to cut the fishing capacity. Fishermen prefer a bigger vessel-scrapping programme and more conservation measures.

If you have not yet noticed the falls in fresh haddock or cod prices at the supermarket (and they may have been negligible in some areas), you may not see them now because of the import limits. As fish is only a small part of processed fish products, manufacturers would not necessarily have lowered retail prices to reflect what could be a temporary phenomenon.

(Photograph omitted)