Sustainability helps underpin demand for whitefish

The European fish processing industry is heavily reliant on raw materials imported from third countries. Almost two thirds of the total supply of fish to the EU is imported and for whitefish this figure is estimated to be close to 90%, according to the latest edition of the Finfish Study* produced by AIPCE-CEP, the European Fish Processors and Traders Association. The study analyses the importance of imported seafood for the European processing industry, showing how supply trends reflect increasing demand for value-added seafood in the EU.

AIPCE-CEP, the European Processors and Traders Association, which brings together EU national associations, and associate members from outside the EU represents 130,000 employees, 4,000 enterprises and a production value of around €23 billion. For more than 20 years AIPCE-CEP has produced an annual analysis of the supply of finfish to the EU market, showing the growth in consumer demand for seafood and how it influences supply trends.


The world’s biggest market for seafood

The EU is the world’s biggest market for seafood with a supply of 14.7m tonnes in 2011. Of this, the share of imports from third countries amounts to 65% or 9.5m tonnes, an increase of 5% (in absolute terms) since 2006. Wild catches in the EU show a generally declining trend from 5.2m tonnes in 2006 to 4.9m tonnes in 2011, while over the same period aquaculture production has remained stable at 1.3m tonnes. Even if EU waters become more productive and aquaculture output starts to increase, the volumes and diversity of seafood available within the EU today can only be maintained through imports.

Pall Gunnar
Iceland is the biggest supplier of redfish to the EU with a 62% share or 37,000 tonnes in 2011. There was no change in this volume compared with 2010.

The increase in imports in 2011 compared to the previous year has not been consistent over species. While imports of whitefish from capture fisheries increased by 159,000 tonnes (6.5%), freshwater fish imports fell – pangasius to 616,000 tonnes (-12%), nile perch to 62,000 tonnes (-13%), and other freshwater fish to 106,000 tonnes (-11%). Tilapia imports were stable at 42,000 tonnes. Imports of both salmon and surimi increased by 28,000 and 16,000 tonnes respectively. Imported salmon was up 3% in 2011 compared with 2010 reaching 936,000 tonnes, while surimi imports amounted to 386,000 tonnes, an increase of 4%. In the case of pelagic fish, mackerel imports increased by 20% to 130,000 tonnes, while herring imports declined to 400,000 tonnes (-13%). Tuna imports showed a 4% increase to 1.7m tonnes. Imports of cephalopods and shrimps also showed a decline to 497,000 tonnes (-4%) and 947,000 tonnes (-1%) respectively.


Import dependency for whitefish 89%

Whitefish is a critical raw material for the EU processing industry and one with the highest import component. Given this significance the study looks at the total supply (EU catches and imports) of the seven main whitefish species (cod, Alaska pollock, hake, haddock, saithe, redfish, hoki) which in 2011 amounted to 2.9m tonnes. This is a return to the level last seen in 2007 before the financial and economic crisis and an increase of 6% compared to 2010. Of this imports supplied 2.6 million tonnes or 89%. The increase is attributed partly to the better health of stocks around the world, which allowed for more generous quotas. Within the EU too catches of these seven species were more or less stable rather than declining. Another factor was prices, which were generally flat, while the euro dollar exchange rate was favourable for importers. Finally, growth in consumer demand also pulled in imports. Among these seven species are some, where demand is driven by traditional consumption and preference, such as cod in Portugal and the UK, and others that are demanded across the EU, such as Alaska pollock, that is the basis of the EU fish finger industry.

Cod is the absolute favourite whitefish in the EU with a total supply of over 1m tonnes in 2011, an increase of 5%. Of the total, 872,000 tonnes or 86% was imported, an increase of 6%. The increase in imports stems from higher quotas for the Barents Sea stocks, as well as increased Icelandic and US quotas (the latter for Pacific cod). The increase in availability of Marine Stewardship Council certified product, which now amounts to 60% of the supply of cod, may also have boosted consumer and industry confidence in this species.

The Alaska pollock fishery in the US Pacific is the world’s most important food fishery and a 50% increase in quotas contributed to an 18% increase in imports into the EU in 2011 to 854,000 tonnes, a three-year high. Imports from the US were up 40% compared to 2010 to 328,000 tonnes, while those from China, the biggest supplier to the EU, increased 10% to 427,000 tonnes. Imports from Russia at 96,000 tonnes were stable. The most common format is frozen blocks, which are used in the manufacture of fish sticks across the EU.

Imports of hake to the EU were stable in 2012 compared with 2011 at 472,000 tonnes, while EU catches increased 10% to 61,000 tonnes. Imports of hake between 2008 and 2011 were consistently around 475,000 tonnes suggesting that global supplies are stabilising after a period of fluctuation. The EU is responsible for about 50% of global hake consumption. On the other hand haddock supply in the EU grew 4% to 222,000 tonnes, of which imports were 176,000 tonnes, an increase of 6%. The main imported product form is frozen fillets accounting for 103,000 tonnes with the main supplying nations being China and Russia. Imports of frozen fillets from Russia saw a huge 71% increase to 23,000 tonnes.

Saithe imports were down to 132,000 tonnes (-21%), as it continues to trade at higher values than in the past. This is partly due to the development of alternate markets to the EU which has lead to lower production of the cheaper industrial blocks. EU catches of saithe increased slightly to 54,000 tonnes despite a decrease in the quota giving an increased utilisation of 87% from 73% in 2010. Of the remaining two species redfish and hoki, redfish catches in the EU fell to 20,000 from 25,000 tonnes while imports were stable at 60,000 tonnes resulting in a overall decrease in supply to 80,000 tonnes (-7%). Iceland is the biggest supplier of redfish to the EU with a 62% share or 37,000 tonnes in 2011. There was no change in this volume compared with 2010. Imports from China, the next supplier fel1 to 12,000 tonnes (-21%). Hoki supply in the EU is wholly dependent on imports with New Zealand the primary supplier (74% of total supply in 2011) followed by China (24%). The main product form is frozen fillets. Imports to the EU increased to 50,000 tonnes in 2011. The rise in hoki imports is due to an increase in quota size in the New Zealand fishery after a period of cautious management. The New Zealand product also benefits from the sustainable credentials of the fishery.


Freshwater whitefish imports decrease in 2011

Imports of the freshwater whitefish species pangasius, nile perch, and tilapia amounted 817,000 tonnes in 2010 which dropped to 720,000 tonnes in 2011. Pangasius forms the bulk of this volume at 616,000 tonnes in 2011 down from 704,000 the previous year due partly to problems within the industry in the main supplying country Vietnam. Nile perch volumes too fell from 70,000 tonnes to 62,000 tonnes. The main supplying countries are Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. While pangasius is imported primarily as frozen fillets, for nile perch the main product form with some 75% of the volumes is fresh fillets. Imports of tilapia were stable at 42,000 tonnes in 2011 with China the leading supplier by a wide margin and frozen fillets the predominant product form.

Nearly 86% of the 720,000 tonnes of freshwater whitefish imported in 2011 was pangasius with most of it coming from Viet Nam. The remainder comprises nile perch and tilapia.

As the study shows, whitefish is popular among consumers and the EU’s own resources are inadequate. Imports fill this gap giving consumers access to a wider range of reasonably-priced products that represent a healthy source of protein. Consumer support for sustainability is among the drivers of demand for some species, such as cod, and could contribute to a general increase in sustainably fished stocks. In addition, imports form the basis of a processing sector that supports not only employment, but also research, and innovation within the industry.

*Fishfish Study 2012, A.I.P.C.E.-C.E.P, EU Fish Processors and Traders Association, Brussels, September 2012. The study can be freely downloaded from