The Guardian: LONDON, England, By Joanna Partridge – “If I were a panicker, I’d be very scared.” Andrew Crook is putting on a brave face but he’s worried. The owner of Skippers of Euxton, a fish and chip shop near Chorley in Lancashire, has already had to put his prices up four times this year, and he fears yet another increase is just around the corner as he battles a tidal wave of rising costs and pressures.
The UK’s fish and chip industry is facing its biggest challenge in its 160-year history, according to Crook, who speaks for the nation’s beloved chippies as president of the National Federation of Fish Friers.
Each week several fish and chip shops among his 1,200-strong membership are going out of business, Crook says, as they are clobbered by rocketing fish and cooking oil prices, as well as the cost of the energy required to fry the food, all at a time when consumers are watching their spending more closely than ever.
But there is no end in sight, as restaurateurs’ energy contracts end and they find themselves on the hook for much bigger bills.
“This week one down the road from me closed. It opened four years ago and they’ve decided enough’s enough. With Covid and then this, it’s just too much,” Crook said. “Some which closed, the cheaper ones, just couldn’t show the price increase; quite a few that were coming up to retirement have just given up.”
The war in Ukraine has already had an impact on energy and raw material costs, and lurking on the horizon is the government’s delayed introduction of a 35% tariff on imports of Russian whitefish.
Large quantities of Russian whitefish such as cod and haddock caught in the Barents Sea and frozen instantly onboard factory ships make their way on to consumers’ plates as takeaway fish suppers or supermarket fish fingers and fillets.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European frozen food company Nomad Foods – which owns brands including Birds Eye and Findus – told its shareholders it was working to reduce its dependence on Russian whitefish. However, the chief executive, Stéfan Descheemaeker, said this transition would not be quick.
“We are finding some ways to increase the purchase from outside of Russia. We’re working with some replacement in terms of species like hake,” Descheemaeker said in a call with analysts, adding that the company was also looking at farmed fish.
“It’s not like you switch off and switch on the light. You’re talking about fish and you need to breed, to obviously grow the fish, you need to make sure that you have the right quality,” he said.
One solution for UK chippies could be Norway, which shares rights to fish the plentiful grounds of the Barents Sea with Russia. Last week Crook travelled to Norway to ask for increased supplies, at a conference arranged by the country’s whitefish industry. The sheer volume, and kind of fish required by chippies would make it hard for the UK or another nations to fill the gap. Crook said he’d made his pleas to the owners of Norwegian vessels but had been warned that “the catching is quite bad”.
“I’ve been trying not to panic my industry, but the biggest risk could be no fish,” he said. “I think the best-case scenario is we could see further [price] rises, I’ve just been trying to get my members to brace themselves for a shock.”
Chippies have been steadily increasing their prices: at Crook’s takeaway a portion of fish and chips is now a quarter more expensive, at £8.60, than it was four months ago. But he and his members know they are walking a tightrope.
“We’re trying to cushion the blow for the consumer, we’ve always been known as a cheap meal, and the vessel owners are trying to cushion us as much as they can because they want to preserve the industry, we’re important to them,” he said.
It’s not just chippies who are feeling the squeeze. Inflation is making itself felt across the entire fish and fish processing industry, especially when it comes to fuel for fishing boats.
Operators up and down the country are weighing up whether it’s worth even heading out to sea, as the higher prices received for their catch are outstripped by the cost of fuel for their boats.
“For certain methods of fishing, it’s reaching that kind of tipping point where fuel costs are maybe 50% or 60% of the operational cost of the trip,” said Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO).
“When you reach that tipping point, it just is a question mark whether it’s viable to continue fishing. I’ve had several calls this week from the coast to say we’re very close to that tipping point. Boats are considering whether they have to tie up now for a while.”
The NFFO said it had pleaded its case with the government, after fuel subsidies were given in recent weeks to French and Spanish fishermen by their governments. “It creates an uneven playing field,” Deas said. “If you don’t catch and land fish, you don’t have a supply chain.”
Any reduction in domestic fishing would have a stark impact on the coastal communities around the UK, from Scotland to Cornwall, that depend on the fishing industry.
The seafood sector is of little overall economic value: fishing, aquaculture and processing represented just 0.1% of the UK economy in 2018, making a £1.4bn contribution, yet this is dwarfed by its symbolic importance.
The deal that accompanied Britain’s departure from the EU has not yet heralded the new lease of life that the industry had hoped for. Initial post-Brexit trading difficulties – such as shipping langoustines, crabs and lobster to the continent – have largely been ironed out, Deas said, but current pressures mean the industry is experiencing anything but smooth sailing.
On the flip side of post-Brexit trading, Jonathan Norris, a London fishmonger, said he continued to struggle to get hold of some non-domestic seafood to sell in his shops. “Prawns, tuna, swordfish, anything that you would consider exotic, and the big farmed fish is often from farms in southern Europe,” Norris said. “It’s impacted by delays at Dover, problems at customs, that was never impacted before we left the EU. We can cope, but it’s more aggravation, and a bit more expensive.”
While Norris’ well-heeled London customers may not be as sensitive to price rises as those on lower incomes, he has also noticed some changes in shoppers’ behaviour. “Our biggest seller is farmed salmon, and it’s more than doubled in price since Christmas,” Norris said. “People are noticing because it’s a staple, it got very popular because for years it was relatively cheap.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “Like many sectors, the fishing industry is facing challenges as a result of global fuel prices. Marine voyages relief provides eligible vessels with 100% relief on their fuel duty costs, and we continue to engage with the industry to discuss ongoing challenges and potential mitigations.”
Top Feature Photo: Fish and chips – ‘We’ve always been known as a cheap meal,’ says Andrew Crook, president of the National Federation of Fish Friers – Phil Noble/Reuters