It is said that we eat with our eyes, but it is also true that we eat with our ears.  Could it be possible to shift the way people feel about a food, simply by changing what it’s called?

In early 2021, we kicked off a new and exciting project, funded by the Seafood Innovation Fund.  We were part of a unique partnership working with Cornish chef James Strawbirdge, The Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation (CFPO), and Ocean Fish (a fishing and processing business) to explore the feasibility of increasing domestic consumption of two of Cornwall’s delicious, but under-loved species – megrim sole and spider crab.

The study was thorough, looking at everything from environmental surveys and fishing data from scientists, to listening to the voices from the seafood supply chain and researching recipe trends. . One of our key questions? We wanted to know what marketing measures or product development would be required so we could successfully introduce these  these underutilised species more broadly to the UK consumer. Here’s how the project unfolded:

The SIF Scoping Study

Keeping it sustainable

To get more people eating megrim and spider crab, we first had to determine that these species would remain sustainable with increased domestic consumption. The consortium explored the environmental footprint of these Cornish fisheries,and mapped out the potential impact increased fishing and supply could have on the sustainability of these species. Our research found the megrim fishery had a light environmental footprint, and that it would be able to sustain (depending on level of demand) a higher demand due to the stock’s health and surplus of quota (an allocation of how much a person or company can catch of that species). The data for spider crab was slightly more limited as not as much fishing data is collected. After extensive interviews with fishery stakeholders the team determined that spider crab fishing effort is ultimately driven by market demand. Increased demand would mean increased work for the fishermen, which would need to be managed on an individual basis.

Voices of the industry

Next we spoke to important players within the seafood supply chain, including the likes of Coop, Morrisons and Lidl, to understand the current markets for megrim and spider crab. Stakeholders from the catch and processing sectors told us that merchants have made a significant effort to promote megrim domestically, but this has not had a lasting impact. The amount of megrim sold to Spanish export markets, a hefty 90%, has always overshadowed the rate of domestic consumption. The domestic market is not strong enough to rely on when the export market fails, so fish is often wasted as there is nowhere to sell them. As for the spider crab market, our interviewees said that the main shellfish buyers usually stop buying before the end of the spider crab season, but, if there was an increased demand, fishermen could keep catching longer into the season. With so much variation in domestic and international demand, spider crab has struggled to establish itself within the market.

What's in a name?

The answer? Everything!

Our consortium is not unique in proposing a rebrand of a Cornish fish species. In 1997, pilchards became domestically known as Cornish sardines. The success of this can be largely attributed to the positive connotations surrounding Cornwall. Our research showed that the adjective ‘Cornish’ triggers positive associations, namely links to the sea and seafood, increasing appetites for produce labelled after the region. Our audience research painted a similar picture; 82% of 118 of James Strawbridge’s Twitter followers said they preferred the name ‘Cornish king crab’ to ‘spider crab’. On Seafood Cornwall’s Instagram, 71% of followers preferred the name ‘Cornish sole’ to ‘megrim’, with 65% preferring ‘Cornish king crab’ to ‘spider crab’. With popularity leaning towards the species’ local names, we took to not only making them sound enticing, but look delicious on a dinner plate too.

Ready, set, cook!

Enter James Strawbridge, whose rustic and colourful cooking style fused perfectly with our goal to excite and inspire the public towards eating local, seasonal species. From Cornish crab spaghetti to Cornish sole rolls, James re-invented the way we understood seafood. Whipping up easy to follow and familiar dishes, substituting chicken and sausage for the under-utilised megrim and spider crab. We also addressed consumer challenges when buying fresh seafood, such as how to humanely kill a spider crab, with easy to follow tutorials under James’ guidance, and how to fillet and prepare a megrim. You can peruse them on our James Strawbridge recipe section by clicking the button below!

James Strawbridge recipes

Brace for impact

The project was a massive success with the media and, suddenly, the suggestion of re-branding megrim to Cornish sole and spider crab to Cornish king crab was a hot topic. At least 20 different online sites, including BBC News, The Times, i News, The Daily Mail and The Guardian, as well as regional and Trade press, were all providing visibility to these under-loved species and our project to reinvent them. This swell of media attention further emphasised the findings of our discourse analysis of the seafood supply chain and our combined audiences, suggesting that the interest in sustainable UK seafood-focused products and projects is still high, and - because of how this sits alongside political discourse around Brexit - our project was primed to capture the ‘national mood’.

The rest is history (and a lot of progress!)

A year on, it has been confirmed that sales of spider crab, under its new name Cornish king crab, have increased! BBC Farming Today visited Newlyn and spoke to Julian Harvey from W Harvey and Sons about whether they had seen an increase in sales a year after the species rebrand. Julian said: “We sold 5000 units last year. I’d say that’s 4-5X more than we sold the year before.” The visibility and understanding of megrim as Cornish sole has also increased nationwide, appearing in media coverage and on a November episode of BBC Countryfile, and appearing in popular food subscription boxes nationwide! We never expected to see these species flying off the shelves overnight, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction for the sustainable consumption of seafood.