Consumers are favouring coley, dab, mussels, squid and sardines over the staple salmon, cod and tuna following the programmes last week, which highlighted the wasteful use of “discard” in fishing practices while encouraging shoppers to take the pressure off popular fish stocks by being more adventurous in what they eat.
The cook and Guardian writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, credited with boosting demand for higher-welfare chicken three years ago, has taken the lead in the new campaign.Programmes from fellow chef Jamie Oliver have shown consumers new ways of cooking less popular species such as mussels, squid and trout.
Sainsbury’s said sales of “bycatch” from its fresh fish counter had been “promising” overall, while sales of pollack had leapt by 167% week on week. It said customers had responded well to the fish featured in Jamie Oliver’s programmes with sales of British and MSC-certified mackerel up 60% and mussels up 16%.
Sales of its sustainable “line and pole caught” canned tuna increased by 17% over the last week, while sales of organic salmon grew by 16% and normal salmon sales remained unchanged.
Tesco, the UK’s biggest fish retailer, said it had seen an increase in sales of between 25 and 45% for fresh sardines, coley, brown crab, sprats and whiting in the week since the first programmes. It said in a statement: “We sell around 40 species of fish on our fresh counters and our staff are trained to advise customers on trying new varieties. Sales of fresh cod, herring, mussels, mackerel and canned tuna also increased compared to last week.”
But the supermarket was singled out by Fearnley-Whittingstall for misleading labelling on its canned tuna, leading the company to pledge to catch 100% of its own-brand canned tuna using the “pole and line” method. Tesco last week came fifth out of the major supermarkets in a 2011 league table of sustainable tuna, compiled by Greenpeace.
Waitrose said sales of seafood overall were up by 15% – with most of this increase being attributed to species that have traditionally been less popular. Sales of frozen coley were up by 36%, frozen mackerel up 31% and Dover sole up 163%. A spokeswoman for Waitrose said: “There has also been strong demand for dabs, which we sell frozen. This week we are launching sprats (a fish that has almost been forgotten by UK consumers) and are looking at introducing dabs and coley on our service counters over the coming weeks. We are also introducing Welsh flounder – a species commonly discarded.”
Ally Dingwall, aquaculture and fisheries manager at Sainsbury’s, said: “Fish Fight has had a direct impact on consumer behaviour. It’s encouraging to see a positive shift towards less popular and bycatch fish, and if we can establish continued demand, fishermen will land and sell more of these species, and it may potentially become targeted species. In the last week, our fish sales have risen across the board: from fresh to counter to frozen fish..”
Asda reported “really strong sales across the whole of the fish category in the last week, up 10% on the previous week” with particular growth in the sales of products included in Jamie Oliver’s recipes. Sales of trout fillets, for example, rose by 56%, whole sardines 66% and whole mackerel up by 115%.
Marks & Spencer said it had ordered in over a third more stock than it did for its peak Christmas week. Richard Luney, M&S fish expert, commented: “We had our biggest ever week in the history of M&S on fish sales last week, sales were up 25% versus this time last year. One of the key highlights was on our line–caught tuna that had a record week – so the importance of avoiding purse seined [a large net that catches entire schools of fish] fishing methods obviously really hit home.”
As part of the Fish Fight campaign, consumers have been urged to add their signatures to a letter to the European fisheries minister, Maria Damanaki, calling for the elimination of discards to be elevated to a top priority in the forthcoming review of the European common fisheries policy. Even before the programmes were aired, the letter attracted over 35,000 signatories but this has now risen to well over 500,000. Today, Fearnley-Whittingstall urged consumers: “Please keep spreading the word. Half a million supporters today – less than a week after our shows went out! I wonder if a million sign-ups is a crazy dream … what do you think?”
Tesco, the UK’s biggest fish retailer, reported that pouting sales had reached the level of 50% of the chain’s cod fillet sales. In January, Tesco said sales of fresh sardines, coley, brown crab, sprats and whiting had risen by between 25% and 45% after Fish Fight aired. A spokeswoman told the Guardian sales of popular species such as cod had held steady, despite the rise in alternative fish.
Morrisons said it had seen a three-fold increase in pouting and dab sales, and a 33% increase in coley sales since January. Its spokeswoman said that while consumers had switched away from cod, haddock and salmon in January, sales of those species “soon returned”.
Waitrose said it was now selling three tonnes of fillets a week across alternative species – such as Anglesey seabass fillets, Cornish pollack, Icelandic whiting fillets and Cornish brill fillets – compared with between 45 and 50 tonnes of cod fillets per week. A spokeswoman said that sales of popular species such as cod were “steady” rather than declining.
Asda said that since January, whole mackerel sales were up by 69%, whole sardines up 32% and whole trout up 72%. Sales of cod and haddock have also gone up.
But Sainsburys, which sells £400m worth of fish annually, said it had seen a 2% decrease in sales of the “big five” species. It sold 46 extra tonnes of coley, pouting, rainbow trout, hake and megrim since June after such alternative species were given away for free during a promotion.
Several of the supermarkets said they had been training staff to advise customers on alternative species, as well as running sustainable fish promotions. Marks and Spencer did not respond to requests for fish sales figures.
Will Anderson, the director and producer of Hugh’s Fish Fight, said: “From our point of view, the most important thing is that people need educating on what fish to eat and what to avoid. We don’t know who is buying this fish – whether it is people switching or people who weren’t buying fish before. Also, we don’t know if people can’t find alternative fish and are buying species such as cod as a result.”
On the question of whether the show was driving up overall fish consumption, he said: “We are concerned that may happen, but not worried about it yet, because nobody really knows. As a nation, we are recommended to eat nearly three portions of fish a week. We’re not saying we should all pile in and eat more fish, and we are concerned with overfishing. It’s about making people more aware.”
Tonight’s Fish Fight on Channel 4 will chart the success of the campaign since January, from political achievements – securing a House of Commons debate and being cited as helpful by the EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki – to changes in the way tuna is caught and labelled, and the campaign’s 700,000 supporters. The new episodes will continue to promote alternative fish and an iPhone app is launched on Monday night to recommend sustainable species.
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ongoing campaign takes place against the backdrop of European efforts to overhaul drastically the common fisheries policy (CFP). Damanaki has said she wants to phase out discards and in July laid out how she would ensure European fish stocks are “at sustainable levels” by 2015.
Cod, salmon and tuna alone account for more than half of all fish eaten in the UK. Globally, in 2008, 42 million tonnes were taken out of oceans – a demand that is forecast to rise, particularly from China, according to the UN.