Monday, 15 August 2011

Not everyone likes Hugh

Publicity-loving celebrities who try to use their status to fight some battle or another, enhancing their own status in the process, are usually popular with politicians of every stripe and layer as well as other celebrities. Sadly, they are not always popular with people who actually know something about the battle they are fighting. So it is with celebrity cook Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall who launched himself into the fight against discards without a great deal of understanding about the causes or details.

According to yesterday's article on the Callander McDowell site, it is not clear what the outcome of Hugh's Fish Fight might be with regards to fish consumption. Here is the whole piece:

Hugh too: Celebrity cook and campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall presented the second instalment of his Fish Fight TV campaign on British TV this week and it turned out to be something of a turn off. We not sure whether it is acceptable to criticise Hugh or his programme especially as some of the leading fish companies and organisations have been actively applauding his efforts and are keen to associate themselves with the campaign. However, the reality is that the Fish Fight has become just one big yawn since whilst he has raised public awareness of over quota discards, Hugh still has been unable to offer a viable solution. If anything, some observers suggest that he is making the problem worse.

Hugh’s remedy to the problems of discards is to encourage consumers to eat a wider variety of fish, rather than the Big Five of cod, haddock, salmon, tuna and prawns. The trouble is, as we have pointed out before, the big five that we buy are largely sustainable species and therefore it is not really necessary to push for a change in consumption habits. This is because the cod we eat is sourced from sustainable fisheries and not from the threatened EU stocks. We know these fish are sustainable because much of it is certified by the MSC as being so.

By comparison, many of the species that Hugh would have us eat are not certified as sustainable, but even more significantly, we don’t even know if the stocks are healthy or whether increased demand would cause them to crash. However, we at Callander McDowell don’t think that Hugh can create a significant and continuous demand for these alternative fish.

Some UK supermarkets are however claiming that sales of these fish have soared. Waitrose, for example, have said that sales of Cornish pollock have increased by 205%, Cornish brill by 64%, Icelandic whiting by 35% and mackerel, the focus of Hugh’s attention, has increased by 105% since January. Yet, according to the Guardian newspaper, Waitrose also say that they are selling just 3 tonnes of alternative fish fillets compared with between 45 and 50 tonnes of cod a week. In addition, cod sales have remained steady rather than showing any decline.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s have sold 46 tonnes of alternative species since the start of their Switch the Fish campaign. Coley has increased by 11%, whilst the stores have sold 8 tonnes of megrim. The greatest increase has been sales of rainbow trout which have increased by 42%. We wonder why the Sainsbury’s have given a tonnage figure for megrim and a percent increase for others. Is this because the actual figures are so low? Of course, other supermarkets are just of guilty of reporting in this way.
Also writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot says that Hugh’s attempt to broaden our taste has failed. He refers to a study by Maria McLean of Surrey University that suggests there has been no significant or lasting impact on any species. Consumers have largely stuck with the big five. Even Sainsbury’s have found that sales of the popular fish have not gone down as the others increased. The small drop in consumption of 2% can probably be explained by the increased price of salmon which has suppressed demand for that one species.

At the same time, the increase in demand for these so called sustainable alternatives has been fuelled by price discounting and by giving the fish away for free. Whether the same momentum can be maintained if consumers have to pay the full price is unlikely. The Guardian newspaper reported that Tesco have said that sales of pouting had reached the level of 50% of the stores cod sales. Yet, as regular observers of supermarket activity, we, at Callander McDowell, cannot say that pouting continues to feature significantly on Tesco counters. It is possible that sales were high during a particular promotion, but we do not think that counters have displayed sufficient pouting to claim that sales are half that of cod. The same is true of fish counters in other supermarkets in that there has not really been a major change in their offering since Hugh’s original programmes were aired.

Morrison’s said they saw a three fold increase in sales of dabs and a 33% increase in sales of coley since January but that whilst consumers had initially switched away from cod, haddock and salmon, sales of those species quickly recovered.

Asda told the Guardian that whilst sales of mackerel have increased by 69%, sardines by 32% and whole trout by 72%, sales of cod and haddock have also increased.

Such observations seem to endorse the view of Aniol Esteban of the New Economics Foundation who suggests that Hugh’s campaign could be counter-productive by increasing demand. He says that it is only necessary to look at countries such as Spain and Japan that have a very varied fish demand to see that they are not the best examples of fisheries management.

When the director and producer of Hugh’s Fish Fight programme, Will Anderson, was asked about the possibility that total fish sales might increase, as Mr Esteban suggests, he said that they were concerned that it may happen but not worried about it yet because no-one really knows if it is happening. He said that as a nation, we are told to eat three portions of fish a week but he does not advocate that Britons should rush to meet this target. He said that really the programme was aimed at making people more aware, something of which he should also take note, for clearly he isn’t aware that the recommendation to eat fish is for two portions of fish a week, not three. Could this be more of an indication that the real facts are irrelevant to Hugh and his team and it is the publicity he gets for himself that is more important? Certainly, the overriding image from the latest Fish Fight programme was of Members of the European Parliament lining up to have their photo taken with Hugh to validate their own caring credentials. The fact that sequence was included by Hugh shows that he is not much better than them.

This blog does not necessarily agree with everything in that piece. For example, we have rarely found reliable data in any New Economic Foundation report. But the arguments are worth reading and discussing. In the end, the solution will not come from TV programmes or minor changes in fish consumption but from a complete alteration of the structure of fisheries, which will have to start with us (and other countries, perhaps) abandoning the Common Fisheries Policy.


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