Rollercoaster ride: Undercurrent News reports that chilled fish sales in the UK continue to slide as price inflation bites and the number of promotions drop. According to Kantar, total fish sales have fallen by 1.1% over the last twelve weeks to 36, 200 tonnes yet sales value has increased.
Kantar say that natural fish is the largest category and a significant driver of the price rises seen in fish. As a result, volume sales of natural fish have dropped by nearly 10%. This is because average prices have risen by £1.92 and promotions have fallen by 60% resulting in about half a million consumers no longer buying fish.
We, at Callander McDowell, expect to see this slide continue through to September due to the holiday season when many shoppers are away. The big question is whether it will continue beyond then?
Over recent months we have seen the retailers finally pass on the price rises for salmon, reflecting the higher spot prices. The increase in the price of salmon is somewhat different to the rises seen for other fish species. Salmon price rises are driven by a shortage of salmon in the marketplace as more fish are diverted to developing markets. By comparison, the price of other species has also risen but mainly due to currency changes and the post Brexit vote.
The combined effect is to deter consumers from the fish sector. Clearly, the retailers are seeing a drop in sales and have been considering what response they should make. Whilst the number of promotions has fallen, they have not completely disappeared ensuring at least some consumer interest. This month is only days old and we are now seeing the promotional screw being turned. One store has cut prices by 25% for some of the most popular species including cod, salmon, tuna and sea bass. We now expect other stores to follow.
How long these promotions can be sustained remains to be seen, but if prices are allowed to return to their previous levels, then sales will undoubtedly continue on a downward slide.
Pink Invader: We, at Callander McDowell, recently highlighted that Pacific pink salmon were being increasingly caught from Scottish rivers. We asked whether their presence was still considered to be an unusual occurrence with the fish turning up by accident or whether they represent a real threat to native stocks. It seemed to us that there seemed to be enough evidence from Ireland and Norway that these fish may now become a regular visitor with the possibility of fish forming a bridgehead in Scottish rivers. We were sent a tweet from one of the salmon fishery boards in which it was suggested that ‘time will tell’.
Can Scotland wait and see?
iLAKS reports that the Norwegian Directorate for the Environment is taking whatever measure possible to prevent the spread of these fish, even sanctioning the use of fishing gear that normally could not be used in salmon rivers. They are also consulting with specialist companies who are skilled in removing invasive species.
In the last three weeks, over 800 humpbacked pink salmon have been reported to the authorities with fish detected in 120 rivers. In just one river, snorkelers estimate over that there are at least 1,200 fish.
This means that there is now a real danger that pink salmon populations could be established in several Norwegian rivers. Many of the fish examined are mature and ready to breed as are fish that have been caught in Scotland.
We repeat our view that if the wild fish fraternity thought that farmed salmon were a threat to wild fish in Scotland, then they should open their eyes to the real risk that pinks pose to Scottish wild salmon.
Harmonious together: The latest issue of Scottish Field features an article by angler Jon Gibb who argues that the way to resolve any issues between the salmon farming industry and the wild salmon sector is compromise, not confrontation. He says that ever since salmon farming came to the west highlands, there has been a relentless media campaign against the industry. Jon says that this is something he knows about because he used to be part of this campaign. He suggests that despite a lack of success, the argument against salmon farming has barely changed with the main theme that salmon farms are wreaking environmental destruction on Scotland’s western coastline. Any other possible causes are conveniently ignored amongst the propaganda and spin.
Jon suggests that there is another way. In the area where he is based, the cycle of mutual distrust has been broken leading to a peaceful and constructive point where fisherman and salmon farmers can both co-exist and thrive. Jon stills sees aquaculture as a risk as but other local industries such as forestry, hydro and terrestrial farming are also viewed in a similar way.
The River Lochy has seen the number of fish caught grow from 32 fish about twenty years ago to around 500 a year today. Twice within the last ten years, the trophy for the largest fish landed in Scotland has been awarded to fish caught and released on the Lochy. At the same time, over ten farms have operated within the waters outside the Lochy. Surely, this is evidence that the two sectors can live and work together in harmony?
Jon attributes the change in fortunes to working with the local industry to run an indigenous smolt stocking project. He says that thanks to the close engagement with local fish farmers, who provide both financial and technological support, the improvements are clear to see. Whilst some see such financial help almost as a bribe, John says that the relationship with salmon farmers is no different to that which has been ongoing with the hydro industry for years. Last year for example, Scottish and Southern Energy paid the entire cost of a £750,000 salmon hatchery on the River Conon.
Jon says that the problem for the wild fish sector is that they have talked themselves out of a recovery. He says that in part this is because the wild fish sector has relied on scientists from the Fisheries Trusts to drive management. He quotes Churchill that ‘Scientists should be on tap but never on top’. Jon suggests that this has never been truer than in dealing with the fish farming industry. The key to progress lies in the unbiased use of science with a generous dose of pragmatic negotiation. Jon ends by saying that with compromise, there is much that can be done to save the plight of wild salmon.
We have summarised much of what Jon has said because he is so right. It makes no sense to us to have such confrontation. We know for ourselves that we have tried to engage with the wild fish sector and time after time being rebuffed. Surely, if those who work in the wild salmon sector care so much about the wild fish, they would be willing to speak to anyone to help identify ways in which the sectors can work together for a common good. Yet, this has been proven not to be the case. The suggestion that close containment is the only solution is not born out by evidence from the Lochy and elsewhere.
However, the point that Jon made that really rang true for us is the suggestion that scientists should be available to help but should not dictate. We have previously written about our experience at the ICES workshop on sea lice and escapes where it soon became apparent that the science was being treated like Gospel when the reality could be not further from the truth, especially as much of the modern science related to fish farming is based on mathematical modelling rather than common sense.
We suspect that this is an issue which will be the subject of much more debate.
Hi-tech wall: It seems that hi-tech investors need hi-tech options when they seek investment opportunities. The BBC report that Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, amongst others have invested $200 million in a new business called ‘Plenty’. The company, a San Francisco start up that set up in 2013 aims to bring the first of its self-grown food to the market later this year. It uses an indoor growing system that uses less space and water than other farms. Its novel approach is to grow its plants on a vertical wall in 20-foot-high towers.
The concept isn’t new. There have been other companies trying a similar approach but the high set up cost has often been a major hurdle. Plenty think that they can overcome some of the past difficulties.
What we, at Callander McDowell, find surprising is that this hi-tech start up makes no mention of how the plants will be provided with nutrients. By this we mean that even the most novel vertical wall farming could be ideally run as an aquaponic system. However, we suspect that Plenty is more about the tech than obvious solutions.
This week BBC TV programme visited the University of Liverpool where there is a newish aquaponic start up called Farm Urban. Although, the company is involved in some interesting ventures with schools and hospitals, the one thing that struck us is that the fish in all their ventures are goldfish. Countryfile didn’t really discuss the fish aspect of their project but their website states that ‘we use goldfish in our system as they are friendly, fun and very easy to look after.’ However, if fish are wanted for their friendliness, fun and because they are easy to look after then there are many options for domestic aquaria. If, the fish are required as part of a farming venture then really the fish should be edible and an integral part of the process. We, have previously suggested that fish often appear as an afterthought when it comes to aquaponics. We would certainly like to see a project where the aim is to farm the fish and the green plants are the afterthought.
By coincidence, Seafood News.com refer to an article that appeared in the Daily Mail about ‘Grow Up Farms’, the aquaponic venture that began in London in 2013. The company now sells 200,000 bags of salad to local food retailers and restaurants as well as 4000 kg of tilapia.
The ‘farm’ is inside a warehouse in industrial south-east London where tilapia swim in blue tubs filled with pristine water ready to be sold to trendy restaurants across the capital. In an adjacent room, under pink LED lights and controlled temperatures, shoots of salad leaves and herbs grown on recycled carpet fibre fertilised with the fish waste. The newspaper describes the space as cavernous and windowless and more suited to a nightclub than a farm but that the greens are stacked on metal shelves stretching to the ceiling.
Grow Up are very different to their early days and we hope that their success is built on sales of both greens and fish. We, believe that there is more opportunity for aquaponics in the UK with species other than tilapia but if it works for Grow Up then all power to them.
Count on sperm: We have written before as to whether the human race will be able to produce enough food to meet future population growth. The UN forecast that the population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. Such food production will be a major challenge but it is a challenge that we don’t think will have to be met because we suspect that the population will never grow to reach such a size.
We have previously argued that sooner or later, the population will succumb to a major disease epidemic that we will be unable to treat. We have had a number of disease outbreaks where there have been doubts as to whether such infection can be brought under control but fortunately so far it has.
Now another threat to population growth has emerged. The BBC News report that sperm counts are falling at such a rate that the human race could feasibly become extinct. A review of over 200 studies has found that sperm counts in men have halved in less than 40 years. The rate of decline is speeding up with a 60% decline in men from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. There is no clear reason for the decline but it has been linked to exposure to chemicals in pesticides and plastics, obesity, smoking, stress and diet.
Unless something is done to reverse this decline, we won’t need to worry whether aquaculture can be a major contributor to future food supply.