• One in six Britons claim to be eating more fish and seafood, two thirds of them attracted by the health benefits
  • The United Nations has declared that almost 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are “fully exploited, overexploited or depleted”
  • The government’s £10m Seafood Innovation Fund aims to invest in technology to increase sustainability in UK waters

Global demand

Global consumption of seafood has more than doubled in the past 50 years. We eat around 144m tonnes per year, with another 10m tonnes used for other purposes. China’s seafood consumption footprint is the largest, at 65m, followed far behind by Japan (7.4m), Indonesia (7.3m) and the US (7.1m).

However, the biggest fish-lovers, in terms of consumption per capita, are South Koreans, who eat 78.5kg each, followed by Norway (66.6kg), Portugal (61.5kg), Myanmar (59.9kg), Malaysia (58.6kg) and Japan (58kg). China is seventh at 48.3kg, while the UK consumes 20.76kg – a figure that has remained constant for around 60 years. 

The EU as a whole consumes almost 13m tonnes, but consumption varies wildly between its members. The Portuguese lead the way; by contrast, Germans eat just 14kg per capita. But demand everywhere is increasing – in 2017 alone, Europeans spent around £100 per person on fish for home consumption, up from almost 3% on the previous year.

Source: Ishfish.uk 

So what is the impact of all this on the price of fish? According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are “fully exploited, overexploited or depleted”.

Increasing global demand and the resultant introduction of aquaculture sustainability policies – across the world, but notably in China – could push the price of internationally traded fish up by 25% by 2030.

The most valuable fish in North Atlantic waters, which includes all the seas around the UK, are mackerel, herring and sole, according to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO). Other nations have quota-limited access to UK waters, as the UK does to theirs, with different fish popular in different nations. The MMO says that in 2017 the UK fleet landed 581,000 tonnes (valued at £811m) from UK waters, but those same seas were popular with the French (120,000 tonnes; £171m), the Dutch (177,000 tonnes; £92m) and the Danes (237,000 tonnes; £90m). 

Herring and sole stocks are still plentiful, but mackerel, Britain’s most valuable fish stock, lost its Marine Stewardship Council “blue fish” sustainability rating in March 2019 after years of overfishing. Figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) show that in 2018 the estimated stock of North Atlantic (including British waters) mackerel fell to 2.75m tonnes, the point at which it is considered necessary to take action in order to allow stocks to recover.

Domestic demand

The most recent figures suggest 97% of British households buy seafood each year, spending more than £6bn. And one in six Brits claim to be eating more fish and seafood – with two thirds of them attracted by its high-protein, low-fat health benefits, according to the Marine Stewardship Council. The NHS recommends a healthy diet should include at least two portions of fish a week. Cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns make up around 60% – 75% of all fish and seafood eaten in the UK.

Source: Ishfish.uk

Domestic prices

The consumer price index of fish has steadily risen by around 20% since 2016, increasing from 96.8 points to 112.3 in the three years to June 2019.

Looking ahead

A commitment to sustainability and the new seascape heralded by Brexit presents a challenging and alternative future for the UK fishing industry. In December, the EU agreed a new quota with Norway that cut by 50% the number of cod UK fisherman could legally catch in 2020. The new limit is a response to figures from the International Council of the Exploration of the Sea showing the number of North Sea cod, which in 2017 hit a 35-year high of 152,207 tonnes, almost halved to 81,224 tonnes last year, making it “environmentally unsustainable” and below a “safe biological level”.

The quota reduction is aimed at replenishing stocks, although the fishing industry claims climate change and warmer waters are sending cod further north, which has not been taken into account. “The reduction in the total allowable catch for North Sea cod will have a serious economic impact on the Scottish white fish sector next year, and will present major practical difficulties for the fleet,” said Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) chief executive Elspeth Macdonald.

Alternatives are available – northeast Atlantic mackerel is so plentiful the EU raised that quota by 41% – but this doesn’t currently help a UK industry whose traditional consumers are reluctant to move away from cod or haddock or imported tuna and prawns.

The new limits also only remain in force until the UK’s Brexit transition phase ends on 31 December 2020 – prime minister Boris Johnson’s oft-stated proclamation that the UK will “take back our waters” may throw up some sea squalls. That date also sees the end of the Common Fisheries Policy, which since 1983 has shared quotas between member states – and enables the UK to import 80% of its cod and 60% of its haddock, while exporting more than 90% of the herring caught by British fishing vessels to Norway and the Netherlands, and 80% of all UK-caught fish to the EU.

Source: Marine Management Organisation

The fishing industry makes up only 0.12% of the UK economy but relies on those exports. The £430m by value of shellfish that we sell annually to France and Spain accounts for more than a quarter of all our fish exports, and is vital to the small-scale fishermen in Cornwall and Scotland. To protect that market, a trade-off allowing EU vessels to continue working in UK waters they have fished for centuries seems likely, if not inevitable. The UK has already struck individual post-Brexit deals enabling its fishermen to catch in Norwegian and Faroese waters.

Employment in fishing

For an island nation, the number of Britons working as fishermen has declined dramatically in the past 80 years: 50,000 worked the boats in 1938; in 2016 the number had fallen to 11,757.

Opinion is divided as to whether Brexit will galvanise the UK fishing industry and boost employment. If exclusive fishing rights are not part of the plan, the future of jobs in the industry may depend on a reallocation of fishing quotas within the UK fleet itself. Nearly a third – 29% – of UK quotas are held or controlled by five large British family firms, and two thirds by 25 businesses, leaving thousands of smaller individual fishing vessels struggling to compete. Many people, including the former shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman, called for the new UK Fisheries Bill (currently awaiting its second reading) to redistribute these rights more evenly. Currently, the legislation does not mention them.


As with agriculture, tech is transforming the fishing industry. Last summer, the government launched the Seafood Innovation Fund, a £10m research and development fund that will support the UK’s technology, fishing and seafood industries to deliver long-term, cutting-edge innovation.

The main advances are around data-mapping, information and fish processing, rather than on board vessels. If technological developments such as artificial intelligence (AI) replace fishing industry workers in the future, it is likely to be those onshore rather than out at sea. Among innovations already in progress in the global fishing industry are:

  • Satellite technology and virtual “watch rooms” to monitor fish stocks and track vessel movements. Technology created by Oxford-based Satellite Applications Catapult and the Pew Charitable Trusts is being used to monitor illegal fishing in the marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, a British overseas dependency.
  • iCatch, an app from Taiwan that allows fishermen to record their daily shellfish catch on their phones in under 60 seconds, then generate their returns and email them to the authorities.
  • Integrated lighting in fishing nets, developed by London-based SafetyNet Technologies, to reduce unwanted catch, improve efficiency and capture environmental data.
  • A World Wildlife Fund blockchain certification system that tracks tuna from the sea to the plate, ensuring it has been fished sustainably.
  • Advanced analytics and data capture/monitoring, not only to track stocks but to combat illegal fishing using geolocation

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