In the 2020 SOFIA report, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) found that the quantity of fish and seafood brought to market has increased more rapidly over the last 60 years than global population. Between 1961 and 2017, average global fish catch increased by 3.1% per year, while global population only increased by 1.6% per year. This resulted in a significant increase in the quantity of fish available per capita, despite some pessimistic forecasts regarding the future development of the global seafood market. According to a rough calculation, 9.0 kg of fish (live weight equivalent) was available for every person in the world in the year 1961. By 2017, this had risen to 20.3 kg. Preliminary estimates for 2018 put the figure at 20.5 kg per capita. There is hardly any other sector involved in the production of animal protein (meat, eggs, milk, etc.) that has seen such an increase in average annual volumes. The only exception is poultry, which has seen slightly greater annual growth of 4.7%.
The general trend of growth in global fish volumes has been driven by fundamental changes in consumption behaviour. The ways in which consumers choose, purchase, prepare and consume specific fish products have changed significantly. On the one hand, this can be attributed to globalisation and the increasing liberalisation of the trade in fish and fish products, which have had a global impact. On the other hand, development has also been driven by enormous progress in fish processing and transport, which has made it possible for fish to be caught in one country, processed in another, and consumed in a third. The international trade in fish has made it possible to compensate for specific limitations arising from unfavourable geographic, regional, and seasonal features of a market. It has also stabilised the range of species and products on offer and provided consumers with greater choice. The primary beneficiaries of this have been the prosperous industrialised countries of Europe and North America, which now import 70–80% of their fish and seafood. In contrast, in Africa the proportion of imported fish was 35% in 2017.
Urbanisation is changing consumer preferences
An increasing level of processing of raw products has been a strong driver of market development and the global trade in fish. Despite certain regional differences, this is a trend that can be seen almost everywhere across the globe. In Europe and North America, some two thirds of fish products for human consumption reach the market in a treated, processed, or preserved form (mostly frozen). In Africa, where stable refrigeration facilities are often unavailable, smoking or drying are the preferred preservation methods. Here, the proportion of fish that is smoked is significantly above the global average. In many Asian countries, consumers prefer fresh or, even better, live fish. However, in general, there has been an undeniable change in the products on offer in Asia, with a move away from traditional methods to more advanced, more highly processed products, which enable greater value creation and result in a higher market value. According to the FAO, the proportion of frozen products in developing countries increased from only 3% in the 1960s, to 8% in the 1980s, to 31% in 2018. The proportion of processed products is still relatively small, but it more than doubled from 4% in the 1960s to as much as 9% in 2018.
A major cause of the global trend towards the increased processing of fish is demographic development. Urbanisation continues to increase across the globe. In 2007, more than half the global population lived in cities – today this figure is likely to be almost two thirds. Urban-dwellers usually have higher incomes than rural populations and spend more money on high-quality, protein-rich food such as fish. The fish trade in urban areas requires suitable infrastructure for the storage, distribution, and marketing of perishable products. Traditional fish markets have been declining in importance. Supermarkets, however, with their highly processed and hygienically packaged products with long shelf lives, play an increasing role. Urban lifestyles, which follow ever-shifting trends in consumption, have also increased demand for fish in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, as it is simple and easy to prepare. Many people eat out in restaurants, cafes, or fast-food outlets, and those who do not often require convenient fish products that can easily be prepared in the oven or microwave. Consumer awareness of sustainability, legality, safety and quality issues around fish and fish products is growing, both in traditional and emerging markets. This in turn is driving demand for traceable and certified products. Fish producers and distributors are reacting to these developments in consumer preferences by adjusting and increasing the level of processing of their products.
Global trade requires high processing standards
Trade in treated and processed products, which has long been a feature of daily life in the West, is now also increasing in other regions of the world. The global fish economy has become more complex and dynamic. The growth in the level of production has been accompanied by similar progress in technological developments in cold chains, shipping, and distribution. The global trade in fresh fish is still associated with large losses due to spoilage. However, such risks are being reduced by processing at the point of origin, which also reduces transport quantities, since processing waste remains at the original location and can be used there, for example for fish meal or fish silage. International supermarket chains and large retailers in particular have driven forward and accelerated progressive developments such as these through targeted demand, fixed supply contracts and regular inspections. They define the minimum requirements for access to the market as well as the quality and safety standards that are vital for consumer protection at a regional, national and international level In order to sell any fish products on the global market at all, strict hygiene requirements in accordance with the Code of Practice for Fish and Fishery Products (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 2016) must be met, and it must be demonstrated that the products have been manufactured in accordance with the HACCP food safety management system regulations.
The high and rising level of processing in the fish sector has also meant that more raw products are being used for human consumption. According to the FAO, in 2018 around 88% (over 156 million tonnes) of the global fish catch of 179 million tonnes was used for direct human consumption. In the 1960s, this figure was only 67% on average! Because more fish is being used for human consumption today, the proportion of catches available for non-food purposes is inevitably decreasing. In 2018, this amounted to 12% of the total catch, i.e. approximately 22 million tonnes. 80% of this (nearly 18 million tonnes) was used for fish meal and fish oil. The remaining 4 million tonnes was used for fish for restocking waterways, for bait or for pharmaceutical purposes. Some was also used for feed for livestock and animals used in the fur industry. The processing methods used for fish are highly dependent on a number of factors, including regional culinary traditions, general fish consumption, the availability of individual species of fish, fish prices and the income level of consumers. Generally, however, it is fair to say that greatly improved refrigeration facilities during storage and transport have made distributing fish products over large distances much easier, which has led to expansion. However, this does not apply to all regions in the global market, because the stability of the distribution chain is also highly dependent on climatic conditions, market penetration and the density and reliability of transport and distribution infrastructure.
Traditional processing methods are experiencing a decline
In some African countries, the power supply network is still patchy and power failures are a relatively frequent occurrence. Because maintaining stable cold chains is almost impossible under these conditions, traditional preservation techniques such as smoking, salting and drying are still relied on in these areas, and the level of processing of fish products is correspondingly low. But even in these African and Asian countries, a slow transformation towards more modern forms of processing is underway. According to the FAO, the proportion of fish products that are preserved by salting, drying, smoking or fermenting decreased globally from 29% in the 1960s to 10% in 2018. A similar development can be seen with fish that is marketed as fresh or still alive. These traditional distribution methods, which have been practised in China for more than 3,000 years, are still very popular in East and South-East Asia, as well as in niche markets in other countries where there are large communities of Asian immigrants. Fish that was fresh or alive still accounted for almost two-thirds of the market in Asia in the 1960s (62% according to the FAO). In 2018 this figure was 51%. This may seem like only a slight reduction, but it represents an enormous shift when one considers the traditional, freshness-oriented trade and food cultures in these countries.
It would of course also be technically and logistically possible to offer live fish for sale in industrialised countries. But two factors would weigh against this. First, the strict health and animal welfare regulations in Europe and North America, which would make selling live fish practically impossible. Second, consumers would not even know where to begin with these types of products due to a lack of experience and skills. They no longer need these skills, because the fish processing industry is increasingly completing these tasks for them, offering attractive products from kitchen-ready fillets and portions to ready meals. Many of these products are frozen when they come to market. The proportion of frozen fish products climbed from 27% in the 1960s, to 43% in the 1980s, reaching a record high of 58% in 2018. The proportion of ‘old-fashioned’ preservation methods (salting, drying, smoking, fermenting) fell from 25 to 12% during the same period.
Market focus increasingly shifting to Asia
The share of global fish consumption taken up by highly processed, consumer-friendly and convenient products with constant availability has increased in recent times, despite the range and variety of fish products available. At the beginning of the 1960s, the three largest seafood markets, Japan, the USA and Europe, accounted for almost half (47%) of global fish consumption. Today, this figure has fallen to less than a fifth (according to the FAO, it was 19% in 2017) of fish sold for human consumption. Now, 71% of fish consumption takes place in economically prosperous Asian countries (in 1961 their share of the market was only 48%). This development has been driven primarily by strong demand in China. China increased its share in the global fish market from 10% in 1961 to 36% in 2017. This increase can be attributed to two factors: first, the vast quantities of fish produced by the Chinese aquaculture industry and second, the expansion of an economically powerful middle class, where social status is defined by a high-quality, protein-rich diet. Since China’s economy began to open up, average fish consumption per capita has increased by around 2% per year. In contrast, European average per capita fish consumption increased by only around 0.8% per year during the same period, and in Japan it actually decreased by 0.2% per year. Growth in Europe has been due less to the buying of larger quantities of fish than to an increase in demand for processed products with more added value. Similar developments can be expected in China, as more and more Chinese people are moving to the big cities, which is strengthening the position of supermarkets even more. Urban-dwellers prefer to buy processed fish products, which can be prepared quickly, conveniently and with less waste in the tiny kitchens which are a common feature in urban apartment blocks.
These developments have created compelling opportunities for the processed fish industry, if it can successfully exploit them. New ideas are also urgently needed in the West, as market structures have become rigid and the range of fish products available is quite fixed and unchanging. Recipes are designed with the culinary traditions of yesteryear in mind, real innovation is rare and demand-related behaviour has stalled and lost its dynamism. It is almost always other cultures that provide us with new food concepts and innovations. Sushi and sashimi, poké bowls, ceviche and even fish and chips can reach new, younger consumer groups more easily than a traditional fish pie or ‘trout au bleu’. Fish processors are still not doing enough to exploit their experience and opportunities to package food ideas like these into attractive, tasty and marketable products.
More processing also increases sustainability
The expansion of fish processing has had significant positive side effects on the sustainability of the entire value chain. Large quantities of by-products are created during processing, which can sometimes make up two-thirds of the raw product. This means that the economically viable exploitation of this so-called ‘fish waste’ is often much more profitable than selling it as ‘waste’ for use as feed in aquaculture or for livestock and pets. For more than two decades, a number of leading nations in fishing and aquaculture have been trying to develop suitable processing technologies for fish waste in order to use this resource more fully and efficiently. Compared to the overall weight of the fish, the quantities of by-products can be significant: 9–12% for the heads alone, 12–18% for the guts, and 9–15% for the spine and bones. While we find it relatively difficult in Europe to eat other parts of the fish than loins and fillets, in other parts of the world it has always been considered normal to eat heads, stomachs, skin, or trimmed parts of the fillet as well. The potential uses for fish – both as a food and for more specialised purposes – are extraordinarily varied. Fish can be used to make sausages, pâtés, cakes, snacks, gelatins, soups and sauces, but also fish leather, biofuels, chitosan, natural pigments, and pharmaceuticals (omega-3 oils), cosmetics, proteolytic fish enzymes or bioactive peptides.
There is already growing demand from the leather, cleaning agent, food and pharmaceutical industries for fish enzymes, collagens and gelatins, and many of the substances contained in fish by-products have not yet been developed for exploitation. For example, scientists suspect that the epidermal mucus found on numerous species of fish could contain antifungal and antibacterial substances. The haemolymph of some species of crab seems to act as a kind of immunological barrier, and certain pigments such as astaxanthin and their esters could have medical applications due to their antioxidant effects. Other marine organisms such as sea snails, sponges, cyanobacteria, or tunicates are believed to contain equally powerful substances, however more research still needs to be done for these species. Researchers are hoping for new cancer treatments, strong painkillers and highly effective antiviral medications. The potential of algae and aquatic plants also extends far beyond agar, carrageen and culinary uses, as they contain many micronutrients, minerals (e.g. iron, calcium, iodine, potassium and selenium), vitamins (particularly vitamins A, C and B12), and natural long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. The term ‘processing’ could thus mean much more than simply filleting or smoking a fish in the near future.