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When the boat comes in: how pollock is taking a top spot on our plates

In an age when awareness of our impact on the oceans is growing, can we still put a fishy on a dishy in good faith? Jason Deans learns how some providers are trying to improve the seafood supply chain

Fish and chips is one of those quintessentially British dishes – rivalling pie and mash, chicken tikka masala and the Big Mac as our national dish in polls.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising for an island nation with a strong maritime history, where seafood has long been a staple part of the national diet. But as our understanding of the damage it does to our oceans deepens, consumers are questioning the implications of this most British of dishes.

Three key issues with fishing are supply chain length, fishing practises and traceability. About 70% of the cod and haddock used in fish and chips is caught a thousand miles away or more, in fisheries off Iceland, Greenland and Norway. Such lengthy supply chains are fairly typical of the fishing industry. Despite our being surrounded by sea, the fish caught in UK waters aren’t, generally speaking, our first choice. Instead, we’ve been a net importer of seafood since the mid-1980s. In 2017 the net trade deficit in seafood was 245,000 tonnes.

That year, Brits got through some 470,000 tonnes of seafood – about 70% of it bought from shops to cook at home. The five most popular home-cooking species were salmon, tuna, prawns, cod and haddock – together accounting for 60% of seafood imports by volume and about 70% by value. None especially surprising.

But the same year saw a new fish on the block: pollock – the sixth-biggest import, weighing in at about 30,000 tonnes. Pollock is one of the few species to see significant growth in UK consumption over the past decade, demand increasing as questions are raised about how sustainable our traditional favourites are.

Suppliers are listening: “Our customers rightly want to buy high-quality, sustainable fish,” says Helena Delgado Nordmann, responsible sourcing manager for seafood at Tesco, “and we have a role to play in making it possible. Our ambition is to source 100% of our seafood in a sustainable way.”

Tesco has worked with Seachill – a Grimsby-based seafood supplier – for 20 years, helping expand its efforts in sustainable-certified pollock. Seachill now delivers about two sea containers of the fish to the supermarket each month.

Seachill has also committed to creating sustainable supply chains. In the case of pollock – caught some 5,000 miles from the UK in the eastern Bering Sea, processed in China and then shipped to Britain – this presents an obvious challenge. But their Alaskan pollock fishery is certified sustainable. How?

This certification focuses less on supply chain length, and more on traceability and fishing methods – developed to minimise impact on the marine ecosystem. It rests on certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a WWF-backed NGO set up in the 1990s with a mission to “create market-led economic incentives for sustainable fishing”. MSC-certified sustainable seafood products carry a “blue tick” logo.

“The blue tick is the gold standard in sustainability,” says Charlie Boardman, Seachill’s director of procurement. “We were one of the first [suppliers] to put an MSC logo on a supermarket pack.” This year, the MSC named Tesco the 2019 UK supermarket of the year. What does that mean in practice?

To achieve and maintain this MSC certificate and logo, everything from fish stock levels to trawling methods and traceability through the seafood processing supply chain is monitored and assessed. The MSC recently made headlines when it withdrew its blue tick certificate from North Sea cod.

“There is a very robust, audited traceability mechanism that we follow … Every point where ownership changes hands, there has to be an MSC chain of custody link.” This means buyers can trace fish from the back of the pack to the fishery, and even the vessel it was picked up in.

In the case of pollock fishing in particular, methods used to meet MSC standards include mid-water trawling, which reduces environmental damage from nets dragging on the sea floor, and nets designed to minimise the bycatch – the proportion of non-target fish species caught.

The process is by no means finished, but it does represent progress – integral if fish and chips is to keep its top spot on our plates.

Tesco aims to source 100% of its seafood sustainably and was awarded MSC supermarket of the year in 2019. For more on Tesco’s work to improve our food, visit tescoplc.com/sustainability

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