Scottish seafood industry adds value with innovation

With the market for seafood booming, Anna Dove learns how fishermen protect their supplies and processors are looking for innovations.

Seafood accounts for the biggest rise in food exports from Scotland, increasing 26 per cent year on year. Our rich offering, from mackerel to mussels and from lobster to langoustine, is fresh, high quality and attracting premium prices worldwide.

Today, it’s hard to imagine that the industry has ever been any different.

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In Scotland, responsible and sustainable fishing is championed and collaborative working is embraced.

It could be said that Scotland’s seafood industry has come full circle from the days when fishermen were more solitary, moving around the coastline with migrating stocks in order to net their catch.

“With a long tradition as a fishing nation, the sector remains of great cultural and economic importance to Scotland”, says Patrick Hughes, head of Seafood Scotland.

“Our vast coastline is scattered with communities – large and small, mainland and island – where our fishing heritage is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Today, fishing is a very modern industry, with larger commercial businesses working alongside the more traditional sectors.

Key fishing ports such as Peterhead and Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire and Lerwick in Shetland are the major landing points for the seafood supply chain.

From there, Scotland’s seafood starts its journey – whether that be a short one to a Scottish supplier, or to one of many global markets.

Wherever the destination, the industry’s transformation to a sustainable model has been vital to the sector’s success and will continue to be pivotal in its long-term future.

But it hasn’t been without its challenges. The introduction of quotas to counter issues around overfishing fundamentally changed the market.

The industry went through huge vessel decommissioning programmes at times when key species such as haddock were being sold 
in vast quantities and at low prices. The tide needed to change to bring value back to the high quality raw material coming out of the clear Scottish waters.

In response, sustainable and responsible fishing revolutionised the sector, with a real collaborative effort to overcome challenges on several fronts.

Environmental and accreditation schemes, many of which were pioneered in Scotland, were put in place.

For instance, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation is recognised globally as a promoter of quality and sustainability.

It has become an important emblem, as well as an ethos, and has been adopted by many sectors of the Scottish seafood industry as a trusted indicator that a species is being fished in a sustainable way.

Accreditation doesn’t stand alone. Technology has also played its part in restoring consumer and retailer confidence, raising the profile of Scottish seafood.

For example, CCTV cameras were introduced on fishing boats to monitor the catch, while innovations in fishing net mesh design have been crucial in controlling the size of fish that is caught, allowing juvenile stock to escape back into the sea.

“Fishermen are custodians of the sea. They have a responsibility for their livelihood and the livelihood of future generations to make sure that the methodology used is considered and practiced in a responsible way,” he says.

“The use of cameras and detection techniques by the industry helps to inform scientists and governments to ensure the long-term health of stocks.

“The announcement last month that the MSC has awarded North Sea cod its badge of sustainability is evidence of the hard work undertaken across the industry in collaboration with the Scottish Government and non-governmental environmental organisations.

“Concerns around overfishing are being addressed and proof is in the results the industry is achieving,” says Hughes.

“We have been able to demonstrate that fishing stocks are heading back to sustainable levels and if we continue with this way of fishing, then we have healthy stocks for the long term.”

This victory is a good example of a team effort: from the fishermen who have changed fishing methods and techniques, to the scientists who developed ways of monitoring and counteracting the situation – all playing a part.

“Now retailers are picking up the baton and making sure that sustainable North Sea cod is available on their shelves and wet fish counters for consumers to enjoy.

“The confidence in that announcement has spread throughout the whole industry and we now have suppliers, retailers and consumers confident that we are getting a native species back to the levels we had hoped for.”

Having achieved so much, the sector is not standing still. Seafood Scotland is one of the 22 partners involved in producing Ambition 2030, the long-term strategy for Scotland’s food and drink industry.

“We are working with the industry to put that strategy into an action plan,” says Hughes.

“Through Ambition 2030 the seafood sector has been tasked with doubling its value.

“But with a finite stock, the value won’t necessarily come from volume – it will come from maximising the potential of the resource.

“We are currently working with industry to answer the big question – what changes are needed to make the strategy a reality?

“And, of course, innovation will continue, as the processing sector prepares to find creative new ways to add value to the consumer offer.

“Developing new processing methods, tracking and responding to consumer trends and addressing access to labour post Brexit are all areas in which innovation will have its part to play,” says Hughes.

In an industry where skills and businesses are traditionally passed down through the generations, Hughes says it is encouraging to see the next group entering the sector with renewed passion, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spark.

“While inward investment is always going to be key, it is these people that will drive value from the investment and shape the industry’s future.

“Their appetite for innovating in what is generally a traditional sector is hugely exciting.”

Some of these opportunities may already be on our doorstep.

Hughes says: “New markets could even be on the quayside.”

Agri-tourism is a growing sector for Scotland and something the seafood industry could easily make more of. Instead of simply buying fish, some consumers are keen to extend that to a full-blown experience.

“We have been exploring options around ‘catch and cook’ tourism, whereby consumers quite literally, fish for their supper.

“Alongside the traditional supermarket and fishmonger routes, getting consumers closer to the product and its origins can only be a good thing.

“Further afield, London and the south-east of England are rich with opportunities to market premium Scottish seafood, while Japan and the Far East have much interest in our mackerel, herring, shellfish and salmon.

“There are further opportunities in North America for whitefish amongst others, and of course, Europe is a strong and historical market for much of our domestic landing,” says Hughes.

“The industry has an awful lot to offer both local and global markets.

“What we need to get better at is working together to meet their needs and maximising the opportunities for what is one of Scotland’s truly wild and finite resources.

“The next stage in that evolution will be getting businesses to work closer together to benefit the whole sector, something Seafood Scotland is helping with.”

The seafood buyer, Hughes believes, is increasingly looking to Scotland for a “one-stop shop” and he wants to find an answer to this question: “Can we get a whitefish processor, a salmon farm and shellfish wholesaler coming together to offer that basket to a customer, rather than going in as individuals each offering one range of products?”

He adds: “Our work doesn’t end there. We need to be showcasing Scottish seafood – along with other Scottish products – to the world and encouraging people to buy Scottish wherever they can.

“I am very confident and excited about the future of the seafood sector.

“There are several factors that still need to come together to realise that potential but everybody is now pushing in the right direction.

“We are all aiming for the same thing – a resilient and successful seafood sector.

“The transformation of the sector is in full flow and today the message is about responsible fishing, a reputation based on a high quality, premium product.

“All this adds up to a great story for the seafood sector and an exciting future ahead for generations to come”

Seafood statistics

– Scottish seafood accounts for £759 million of Scotland’s food and drink exports.

– 46 Scottish companies attended Seafood Expo Global in Brussels in April, up 40 per cent on 2016.

– Scottish seafood accounts for the biggest rise in food exports from Scotland at 26 per cent year on year.

– Scottish salmon is enjoyed in 60 countries worldwide.

– North Sea cod was awarded the gold standard for sustainability by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in July.

– 70,000 tonnes of cod is eaten in the UK each year, making it the nation’s favourite fish.

– A YouGov survey carried out for the MSC found 35 per cent of UK adults didn’t know if cod was sustainable or not.

– North Sea cod stocks peaked at 270,000 tonnes in the 1970s, before stocks fell to 44,000 tonnes in 2006.