When thinking about the seafood supply chain, it’s easy to skip a pretty big step; processing. It’s the important – but often rather mysterious – step between a fisherman’s deck and a foodie’s dish. In fact, when we talk about the disconnect between the fish swimming in the sea, and the fish on our plates, processing is quite often where this shift happens.
We talk to Rich Adams from Trelawney Fish; processor and fish filleting extraordinaire about the processing process (yep – that’s a thing), quality vs quantity, and the export market to Europe.
Cornwall is known for its incredibly diverse range of species, and Trelawany in the heart of Newlyn is no different! “Things like hake, pollock, and occasionally dogfish come from gill-netters, whilst plaice, monkfish and lemon sole are caught by trawlers.” Mackerel are often handline caught from Newlyn, and sardines are caught by inshore fishermen using ring netters, which Trelawny buys in bulk.
“The most common processing is probably filleting, because in this country we tend to like things without bones! We generally process within a couple of days, then we send it via transport up to London or various other places in the UK, or sometimes across the channel to France, Spain, Switzerland.”
Interestingly, sardines are often butterfly-filleted by a machine because they’re a significantly smaller fish. Imagine processing large quantities of sardines manually!
“For more high-end dining, sardines do look nicer when done by hand – it’s a really presentable product. But the machine does a really good job; it takes out all the bones and everything, and means people can enjoy sardines at a pretty affordable price.”
“Obviously you’re always aiming to send fish as soon after you’ve bought it as possible, but it’s also quite a speculative trade where you’ve got to buy when you don’t necessarily have a customer in mind, so it sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t.”
Sardines, hake, pollack and megrim are Trelawney’s star species, making up around 75% of sales. Once processed, the fish are all destined for different markets, within and outside of the UK. Rich explains how “everything has a price at market, because there are many buyers who each have their own export customers, who in turn quote a daily price they are willing to pay.”
Export markets fall into well-established patterns, and are driven by the interplay of many factors. Every country has its own particular cuisine and cultural taste, which shapes domestic demand. If this demand cannot be met by domestic fishing capacity, then the country will import. For example, the majority of south-west pollack processed by Trelawney is exported to France where the species is highly valued.
Importantly, export markets are dependent on volume – processors need to meet a ‘critical mass’ of a certain species for it to be worth exporting. Gurnards make up a fairly small portion of landings within the UK, meaning Trelawney rarely processes a volume that is worth exporting. Mackerel, however, has a steady demand from UK consumers, and so tends to land on British dinner plates, rather than be exported.
Spain is known for its love of seafood – so much so, that the Spanish often appreciate British fish more than the British do!. As Rich says, “the most common reason for export is demand – we are catching fish that we just don’t eat here, and they have to go somewhere!”
Megrim sole (or Cornish sole as it’s often known) is also quite a thin fish; here in the UK less people like to eat whole fish, and so its tasty white meat often goes unappreciated. If there were an increased market for megrim in this country, fishermen wouldn’t have to catch such large volumes of it to justify exporting it. A higher domestic market for megrim would allow fishermen to get a better price for their catch; a win-win for British fishermen.
“On paper, less reliance on foreign markets could be a good thing, but in reality we are talking about vast quantities of fish. Trying to get a nation to suddenly start consuming something new would be a difficult proposition. To give context, whilst a busy week selling megrim at Trelawney might mean 4 or 5 tonnes of fish to Spain, we’d be unlikely to sell a single box to our UK wholesale customers, and would probably sell around 20-25 fish over our retail counter.”
The most significant success story with increased domestic demand is hake fillets. “It’s an MSC-certified fishery, and increased demand came from trends like chefs cooking and eating them. We now process loads of it and it all gets sold within the UK. So there’s clearly models that would work with other fish – like megrim – it can be done”.
Sardines are another good example which has changed because we now sell a lot within the UK. Quite often, the UK is criticised for exporting good seafood products abroad. However this is a major source of revenue for the nation, and it boosts the reputation of the lesser-consumed species in our home country, as a result of popularity abroad.
“If Cornish sardines are good enough to ship to France where they’ve got a history of eating a lot of them, then that’s a success story…” explains Rich, “exports aren’t always a bad thing!”
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