We’ve all borne witness to increasing haddock prices over recent months as shortages grow, but now, as some shops take action and start to switch or increase the volume of cod they sell, it’s beginning to have a knock-on effect on the price of cod too.
So what’s causing this pressure on one of our most valued commodities and how long will it last? Neither question meets with a simple answer. Fishing, as we know, is complex and for that reason the lack of landings of haddock is influenced by a number of factors.
One of the issues is that on the back of Brexit, the UK and Norway failed to reach a fishing deal earlier this year, preventing UK vessels from entering Norwegian waters – areas of the sea where traditionally the larger haddock preferred by fish and chip shops are caught. To put it into perspective, according to government figures, UK fleets landed fish worth £32m in Norwegian waters in 2018.
This has had a big knock-on effect on UK trawlers like the Kirkella. In normal times, this state-of-the-art frozen at sea vessel would be supplying the UK market with up to 10% of the cod and haddock consumed in the UK, but instead it has been tied up in Hull.
Alan Addison, skipper of the Scottish fishing vessel Venture III, comments: “Kirkella was refused fishing opportunities on the northern Norway grounds when no deal was reached between UK and Norway this year so that basically turned the “fish tap” off overnight from that major supplier.”
Another issue is with Norwegian trawlers operating in the Northeast Atlantic reporting far fewer larger haddocks in their catch over the past few seasons. With Norway supplying a significant amount of the haddock used by UK fish and chip shops, this has naturally put pressure on availability.
Daniel Harbo Pinheiro, sales manager at PHL Seagold, which owns the Norwegian longliner Leinebris, says that although they caught good volumes of big haddock in 2018 and the early part of 2019, with sizes well above 1.5kg – ideal for filleting for the UK fish and chip shop market – he saw a change towards the end of 2019. Despite operating in exactly the same fishing grounds since then, he reported a large concentration of haddocks below 800g, making 2020 and 2021 challenging years.
He comments: “We saw a much higher percentage of small haddocks in our catch, and naturally less of the big fish which is suitable for filleting. The percentage of small haddocks increased even more in 2020 and 2021. When the haddocks have been so small it has been difficult to produce fillets, so we prioritise headed and gutted production.
“This could mean that the “old” year classes have been caught, while there are “new” year classes coming through. We hope that the 2016 and 2017 year classes will continue to grow and increase the stock.”
Also having an impact on supplies, although perhaps to a lesser extent, is that as a result of no-access deal with Norway, the inshore Scottish fleet that normally work the Norwegian sector for better grades of haddock were also denied access, effectively cutting off the fresh market fish tap too.
Alan Addison adds: “For a variety of reasons, the haddock in the Norwegian sector is generally more abundant in better grades, whereas the UK sector more predominantly supports the small haddock market – supermarkets, processed fish products etc.
“Likewise, and this is the one that’s hurt us the most, a no-access deal was agreed with the Faroe Islands where we’d be spending up to 25-30% of our year fishing, again, because of the better grade of haddock habitat available.”
It’s a situation that has hit the UK fishing industry hard with some boats out of action altogether and others forced to fish grounds that yield smaller grade haddocks.
Jimmy Buchan, skipper of Scottish fishing vessel Amity, has been left frustrated despite being proactive. He comments: “No UK deal with the Faroes or Norway has curtailed landings more so of larger fish grades which are popular with chippers. I’ve tried to get customers to use two smaller pieces of haddock, but it does not seem to excite the customer. Traditional Scottish haddock fishing grounds yield smaller grade fish but, alas, there are limited suppliers who can handle this.”
It’s hopeful that a deal will be struck for 2022 and that come January access to Norwegian and Faroe waters will be granted once again, thereby easing the situation greatly.
However, in the meantime, Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, identifies another problem in the mix – a shortage of labour.
He adds: “There’s a shortage of labour in the primary processing companies in Aberdeenshire, especially with regard to filleting smaller haddock which is highly skilled and time-consuming. What we really need is the automation of the process for filleting smaller sizes of haddock and access to a larger pool of skilled labour.”
It’s a concern Amity’s Jimmy Buchan shares too as he calls on the UK government to do more to help the sector. He comments: “Although they are listening, they are slow to react and facilitate the need for access to a wider global labour pool. Government incentives where workers get top-up credit schemes simply mean they are not willing to take full-time employment.”
He adds: “We need to keep the dialogue with government open and challenge them on the lack of change. I have met with the PM and delivered that message so am hoping we can get some better results. Brexit was always going to hurt; time will tell if it’s short term or longer. Nonetheless, we must keep the politicians’ feet held to the fire.”
Some positive news is that the haddock shortages are not believed to be linked to over-fishing in the North Sea, with fishermen reporting stocks are plentiful. Jimmy Buchan comments: “I certainly don’t think overfishing is taking place. We fish within the scientific guidance set by ICES who are recommending an increase of 135% for next year.”
Scottish White Fish Producers Association’s Mike Park is also positive and points out northern haddock stocks – which includes the North Sea component – will reach a record spawning biomass in 2023, which he says “is good for everyone”.
So that leads us to the question of what can we do for the time being until trade deals are negotiated, quotas are set and the larger haddocks return in abundance?
Daniel’s advice is to plan ahead. With the Leinebris about to head back out to the Barents Sea any day to start its main season for haddock and cod, he says: “If you want Norwegian origin, keep in mind that our main catch season for frozen at sea cod is November, December and January. The quota in the Barents Sea will most likely be cut, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that prices will go up at some point. So my humble advice would really be to make sure you get the Norwegian cod you need while you have the chance.”
For some shops, this period of uncertainly might provide an opportunity to try customers on something different just to take the pressure off haddock for a little bit. Alan Addison has a few ideas for haddock substitutes: “Whiting, coley and ling would be the top three without going too off-piste and running into more supply issues. Tusk or forkbeard could also be used but are caught as by-catch and not target species, generating a sporadic supply.”
And then there’s also the issue of understanding that we are working with nature and accepting that you may have to be a little bit more flexible going forward. Jimmy Buchan concludes: “Shops have to accept that they can’t always have a certain size haddock every single day of the year; seasonality and weather both play a significant part in the supply chain.”