Skip to main content

Steering the course: impacts and inspiration in the UK seafood supply chain

George Clark

MSC's Senior Commercial Manager, UK & Ireland

© MSC / Nigel Millard

As the UK fishing industry and supply chain steadies its ship following widespread implication felt by the coronavirus pandemic, George Clark reflects on what we’ve seen so far throughout MSC UK’s stakeholder community.

Ten weeks ago I was down in Cornwall, having joined a Project UK meeting where I was asked to present to a crab and lobster steering group on the MSC crab market abroad. I showed a growing prevalence of MSC labelled products in Asia, where markets in China and Korea are crucial for UK shellfish fishermen. Even then, the threat of Covid-19 was apparent, and I noted that should the impact of the virus continue in China, it could put local markets at grave risk. We agreed in the room but didn’t really, at that stage, consider it arriving here. Everyone was hopeful for a burst of spring and a busy summer season.  

Then, just over a month later, the landscape changed, almost by the hour, as the global pandemic was confirmed. Before long, all the consequences of a world having to adapt to social distancing became very apparent, with some devastating impacts felt across the seafood supply chain. UK restaurants closed, and many fish and seafood export routes stopped as those markets in turn also locked down. For a nation where 80% of our catch is exported and almost the same volume of what’s eaten is imported, this had monumental implications for our fishing industry and supply network in the UK.

We sadly read about our fishing partners tying up, with landings into some of the UK’s biggest ports dropping and fishing simply not being viable for some vessels. These current and unprecedented events came as a huge worry for an industry that has come such a long way to rebuild fish stocks and put the hard work in to regain a prosperous and vibrant position, from Penzance to Peterhead; and following a miserable winter at sea that has restricted a great deal of fishing activity.  

Out of adversity comes opportunity

However, as a famous American leader once said: “out of adversity comes opportunity", and we have certainly seen a lot of that across the UK seafood sector over the past few weeks. Without any time for the dust to settle, we saw businesses support and care for the country and its citizens, as illustrated by a pre-competitive partnership by national suppliers Brakes and Bidfood. By leveraging their joint supply chain capabilities, they have been able to ensure that vital food supplies are able to reach the country’s most vulnerable during the crisis.   

Restaurants pivoted, with local direct-to-home offerings emerging overnight, as consumers searched for alternative ways to source food direct to their doors. Andrei Lussmann and his team at Lussmanns are a great example of this, delivering MSC fish gratins to hungry customers.  

While supermarkets came under immense pressure from increased demand, empty shelves were re-stocked and resilient supply chains continue to ensure sustainable fish is available across the UK. Waitrose fish counters have remained open, providing a crucial fresh supply line for UK fishermen supplying MSC certified white fish. Local fishmongers have also rallied and worked tirelessly to ensure connectivity with fishing communities are maintained and grown to retain the local hubs that many rely on for their fish.  

One of the most inspiring aspects of the supply chain reaction for me has been with the emergence of fish-to-door deliveries, for those remaining indoors and wanting the fish to come to them. There’s been a flurry of activity across the UK to realise these new opportunities. Schemes like #FishToYourDoor and Call4Fish launched to take fresh fish direct from fishermen, via established suppliers and also using couriered delivery.  

The response online and in the media has been immense, with coverage on This Morning and in the national press. At one point James Martin managed to crash several websites by promoting these schemes on TV. What is most striking to read is the pride people take in being part of the effort to support local, UK businesses during a time of great need, and the level of freshness, quality and variety of fish they are receiving. This has meant a substantial increase in business for suppliers like Trelawney Fish in Newlyn and Fish For Thought, both based in Cornwall. 

The result of all these efforts is a boost in demand through new supply routes, helping keep fishing vessels at sea and livelihoods intact. The MSC certified Cornish hake fleet is a case in point and it’s be wonderful to see this iconic and sustainable fishery rebound from a period of being forced ashore to making landings on Newlyn fish market daily last week.  

It’s truly impressive to see how quickly the sector has responded to this new and changing reality. Equally impressive is the reaction from consumers and the appreciation they have to receive fresh fish for their tables to enjoy. Having participated for the first time in some online fish ordering myself, my hope is that this renewed enthusiasm and boosted supply route isn’t temporary but is the grass roots of something more substantial in how we find, source and eat our fish in the UK.

There are still big challenges ahead and I wish all those working hard to ensure fish arrives onto our plates well, so that this vital sector continues to supply sustainable, nutritious and delicious seafood.

So, stay safe and #EatMoreFish