Fish finger for a modern makeover

The race to replace the dwindling cod.

AS fish stocks decline around the world, it seems environmental correctness has hit what is, arguably, the most identifiable seafood product on the market — the fish finger.

Fish fingers have traditionally been made from cod, a species that’s endangered and fished to the point of extinction, some experts would say. As well as becoming scarce, cod is also going to be more expensive to buy — a key commercial consideration.

Birds Eye, which produces 530 million fish fingers each year, has decided to start replacing cod with Alaskan pollock as the basic raw material for its fish fingers, which have been a favourite with generations of children since the 1950s.

We’re in the era of the “sustainable” fish finger, which, in plain language, means being able to continue providing the product without damaging diminishing fish stocks.

Already, 75% of the world’s fisheries have been identified as fully exploited, overexploited or significantly depleted. This prompts the question: Are we going to decimate species after species — first cod, then pollock — bringing each in turn to the brink of extinction? There are also suggestions that farmed cod, which is being produced in growing quantities, could be used for fish fingers.

Birds Eye uses 17,000 tonnes of cod a year for its fish fingers, but it is to replace about 4,000 tonnes of this — which equates to two million fish — with Alaskan pollock, which will be available from September. It has also introduced haddock fish fingers.

Birds Eye stopped using cod from the North Sea as far back as 1999, a move since followed by the leading supermarkets. Since then, it and leading stores have switched to the more plentiful supplies taken from the seas around Iceland. However, the shortage of cod in waters around Ireland and Britain has inevitably led to higher prices.

Cod prices are expected to rise over the next five years as it moves from being an everyday fish to something for more special occasions. Over this period, cod fish fingers are likely to become more expensive than pollock and haddock.

The EU has introduced a cut of 14%-20% in cod fishing quotas while at the same time increasing quotas for haddock, monkfish and prawns.

According to Birds Eye, the pollock for fish fingers will be sourced solely from Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries, which have passed stringent sustainability criteria.

Like all corporate decisions, the company’s decision to switch to pollock is commercially driven. Pollock is cheaper than cod to buy. But Birds Eye chief executive Martin Glenn said it was committed to providing fish from sustainable stocks, using methods that would not harm the marine environment.

He said the move was motivated by “enlightened self-interest”, pointing out that while demand for fish was increasing the supply is going to be increasingly problematic.

Up to now, the company has told consumers that the only good fish finger is made of cod, but it must convince the market that Alaskan pollock is just as good. “It’s a bold move — the first mass-market sustainable fish programme in the world — but it’s a calculated risk and we feel good about it,” said Mr Glenn.

According to the UN, 52% of the world’s fisheries are working at capacity and 24% are overexploited or depleted. Cod stocks in European waters remain well below safe levels.

Alaskan pollock is the largest food fish resource in the world, with more than three million tonnes being caught each year in the North Pacific from Alaska to northern Japan.

Catches from US fisheries have been quite consistent, at about 1.5 million tonnes a year, almost all of it from the Bering Sea.

The Alaskan pollock is said to be the largest remaining source of palatable fish in the world. This is commonly used in the fast food industry.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is planning a huge shake-up of the cod recovery plan to protect fragile stocks. The review was announced by EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg at a conference on development of a comprehensive marine science and technology strategy.

He said it was clear the existing cod recovery plan had failed to work in restoring cod stocks, notably in the North Sea. But he pointed out that a recent Edinburgh summit of scientists, fishermen and environmentalists had come forward with a positive message that stocks could recover.

He appealed for fishermen and scientists to continue to work together in helping to shape the proposals for a reform of the cod recovery plan, to be finalised next year.

But radical changes would be required with measures tailored to specific fishing grounds, said Mr Borg, adding: “The results there [the North Sea] that we expected are not there, although scientists and fishers have said there are signs of a recovery of cod. For the cod to start regenerating we need time.”

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