(last updated July 2019)
The fish on our plates
Years ago, fish was considered to be a cheap, if slightly dull, alternative to meat. People ate large amounts of everyday staples like cod, while salmon was considered a luxury and 'exotics' like shark and fresh tuna were seldom seen on the average fishmonger's slab.
Things have changed - fish is now more likely to be seen as something special, a treat to be eaten in an expensive restaurant or to be cooked at home to recipes by celebrity chefs. We eat less of things like whiting and herring but much more salmon, which is now cheaper than cod thanks to the rise of fish farming and a decline in North Sea cod stocks. People also have more sophisticated tastes - shellfish and squid consumption is on the up, while a good fishmonger's slab will usually include a wide range of exotic and luxury items alongside the usual staples.
People have also become more aware that over-fishing continues to threaten some species, such as cod, sea bass, tuna and halibut, and are increasingly prepared to try other, less threatened varieties. More and more people are concerned about whether their fish has been caught using sustainable fishing techniques too - particularly methods that don't cause harm to other species. Thanks to years of bad press, intensive fish farming - particularly of salmon - has got something of a bad name. Although many people are attracted to the low price of farmed salmon, more and more are becoming interested in how it has been farmed and are demanding organically farmed fish.
The television presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his 'Fish Fight' campaign in 2011 in an effort to put pressure on politicians to change the existing quota system of fishing in favour of a more sustainable model. The campaign also attempted to popularise less commonly eaten fish and to reduce consumption of cod and tuna. Recently the wasteful practice of throwing fish back overboard was banned as a result of reforms made to the Common Fisheries Policy in Europe.
People who buy fish
As fish has become more highly prized it has also become more expensive. Today's fish buyer is likely to be quite well off, someone looking for something a bit special for their dinner and who doesn't mind paying a little extra for it. Many of these people take a real interest in the fish on their plate - they want to know all about the range of species available, where a particular variety comes from, how best to cook it and so on. Despite their enthusiasm though, people have become used to buying their food pre-packed and ready to cook or eat - we seem to know less about the basics of preparing fresh fish than our parents and grandparents.
Recent years have also seen people become more interested in healthy eating. The Food Standards Agency recommends that people should eat at least two portions of fish a week.
Today we eat much of our fish in restaurants. The catering industry is now a major fish buyer and many fishmongers earn a large part of their income from wholesale business.
Places that sell fish
The specialist fishmonger no longer has a monopoly on fresh fish sales - far from it. We now buy most of our fish from the supermarket, perhaps from the wet fish counter, the chiller cabinet or the freezer. The rise of the supermarket has decimated the fishmonger trade, putting many fishmongers out of business. Now though, the specialists are fighting back, stocking wide ranges in smart, modern shops, selling only the freshest, best quality fish and going out of their way to help and advise their customers. In fact, recent research shows that after years of decline, the number of independent fishmongers has suddenly grown - in response to demand from 'foodies' looking for something special.
Fish retailers have also embraced e-commerce. Fishmongers, port merchants and even fishermen themselves have gone online to advertise their products and to offer express mail order delivery straight to their customers' homes.
Having become something of a luxury food for many, demand for fresh fish was inevitably hit when the economy took a downturn in the late 2000s and stayed very weak in the early 2010s. Things weren't helped by the fact that fish prices continued to rise. However, enterprising fishmongers looked for ways to keep shoppers buying fish - these included offering special deals, stocking less expensive alternatives, and educating customers about cheaper species and ways of cooking them. With the recovery of the economy during the mid-2010s, the prospects for independent fishmongers appear brighter than for some years, particularly as many top chefs are now actively promoting fish and shellfish dishes on their menus and reducing the number of meat-based options and some consumers are actively choosing to support independent food outlets rather than shop in supermarkets.
Keeping up with developments
A good way of keeping up with developments in your industry is to join a trade association:
- the National Federation of Fishmongers (NFF) represents and safeguards the interests of fishmongers in the UK
- the Seafish Industry Authority represents all areas of the seafood industry and produces a wealth of resources and organises a range of campaigns to benefit the industry
- The Shellfish Association of Great Britain represents all areas of the shellfish industry "from harvest to sale"
The Marine Conservation Society Good Fish Guide includes details of sustainable fish and seafood - it's a good idea to stock the varieties recommended because these are likely to be looked for by customers choosing to buy fish from sustainable sources.
Visit the organisations' websites for more information.