Newswise — New research highlights the implications for our future food security as the UK faces a growing disparity between the fish we catch and the fish we desire to consume.

In a groundbreaking study published in the international peer-reviewed journal Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, researchers from the University of Essex and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) present a thorough and extensive analysis. This study, spanning 120 years, provides valuable insights into the ways major policy shifts have shaped the landscape of seafood production, trade, and consumption in the UK.

The study reveals that altering our preference for imported flaky white fish, such as cod and haddock, to species that are abundant in our local waters, like herring and mackerel, would not be sufficient to fulfill the UK's domestic demand or align with the government's guidelines for healthy eating. It emphasizes that even with such a change in fish consumption habits, UK seafood production would remain insufficient.

Luke Harrison, the lead researcher from Essex's School of Life Sciences, elaborated on the study, stating that their findings shed light on the impact of policy changes in the mid-1970s. Specifically, the establishment of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and the UK's membership in the European Union contributed to a significant disparity between the seafood produced within the country and the seafood consumed domestically.

The widening gap between seafood availability and consumption, which has been intensified by declining stocks due to fishing, climate change, and habitat degradation, surpasses any previous disparities observed, even during times of global conflict like the two world wars. This discrepancy has led to an escalating dependence on seafood imports and a decline in domestic catches.

Fish has emerged as one of the highly traded food commodities globally, and the UK has witnessed a significant surge in seafood imports, a trend that was relatively minimal before the 1970s. Presently, the majority of fish consumed in the UK is imported, while a significant portion of the fish produced within the country is exported from both fisheries and aquaculture. The UK's preference for large, flaky fish originated in the early 1900s when the nation enjoyed a prosperous distant-water fishery.

Nevertheless, in present times, these desirable species are caught in limited quantities within UK waters. Conversely, abundant and cost-effective bony species, notably mackerel and herring, are caught in substantial quantities. However, instead of being primarily consumed domestically, these species are primarily exported to the Netherlands and France.

Dr. Georg Engelhard, a co-author from Cefas, elaborated on the matter, emphasizing that the increasing popularity of tuna, shrimps, and prawns among UK consumers indicates a failure to adapt eating habits in response to the changing availability of local seafood over time. Despite notable shifts in the local seafood landscape, consumer preferences have remained largely unaltered.

Following the establishment of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the UK's accession to the European Union in the mid-1970s, there has been a sharp decline in domestic landings of fish in the UK. The figures demonstrate a significant decrease, with landings plummeting from 869 thousand tonnes in 1975 to 349 thousand tonnes in 2020.

Presently, the UK population consumes 31% less seafood than what is recommended by government guidelines. Even if local species were to become more popular, the combined production from domestic fisheries and aquaculture would still fall short by 73% of the recommended levels, even when accounting for imports.

Dr. Anna Sturrock, the senior author from Essex's School of Life Sciences, further commented, stating that in light of climate change, rampant overfishing worldwide, and potential trade barriers, it is crucial to promote locally sourced seafood and offer clearer guidance on non-seafood alternatives. By doing so, we can effectively address national food security concerns while also striving to achieve health and environmental objectives.

Journal Link: Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries