Nowhere do people love fish and chips more than in the United Kingdom, where the National Federation of Fish Friers calls it “the undisputed National dish of Great Britain” and claims sales of 1.2 billion pounds sterling per year.
No wonder, then, that when a new study came out yesterday seeming to suggest that the dramatic warming of North Sea waters due to climate change could threaten stocks of fish like haddock — one of the leading fish components of the dish, along with cod — there was something of a media freakout.
“Global warming could make haddock and chips a thing of the past,” blared the UK Mirror. “Fish and chips on the brink of extinction due to warming seas,” added International Business Times. Many other headlines suggested more or less the same.
The study itself didn’t say this — and a key fact raises considerable reason for doubt about these headlines. Namely, whatever happens in the North Sea, much of the fish that winds up in UK servings of fish and chips isn’t caught there at present. Most of the cod and haddock consumed in the form of fish and chips in the UK instead come from the Barents Sea and Iceland, according to Seafish, a joint industry and government organization set up to ensure sustainable fish stocks.
That doesn’t mean the new research is unimportant — and it is indeed bad news, when interpreted properly. But the alarmist media headlines call to mind the buzz last year about Chipotle supposedly considering discontinuing guacamole because of climate-related changes in food costs — a story the company had to debunk on Twitter.
So what happened here?
Let’s first go to the research itself. The study was published in a top journal, Nature Climate Change, by University of Exeter biosciences researcher Louise Rutterford and her colleagues. It doesn’t say anything directly about the loss of fish and chips.
Instead, the study begins with some crucial background observations: The North Sea has seen a staggering warming since the 1980s, “four times faster than the global average.” And this has already meant that catches of “cold-adapted” fish species, like haddock, have declined by half — even as catches of warm water loving intruders have gone up by “a factor of 2.5.”
But we’re only at the beginning of the projected warming. So the researchers used a novel model that took into account both climate projections and fisheries and other environmental data to study how distributions of the top ten most common North Sea bottom dwelling fish would change as warming of the North Sea continues over the next 50 years.
The fish species studied were cod, dab, haddock, hake, lemon sole, ling, long rough dab, plaice, saithe, and whiting. They accounted for 68 percent of fish caught commercially in the area in the last three decades, the study says. And the paper found that many of these species would not be able to shift their habitats to deeper, cooler waters in order to weather the changes that were coming — simply because they had already tried that adaptive strategy in past decades and it had been “largely exhausted.”
The study instead found that the fish might have to, in effect, weather in place, and face an additional 3.2 degrees Celsius of potential warming by 2100. ”The ecological consequences are unknown,” the study noted, especially since the fish could face invasions of competing warmer water species.
“Fish will either need to change their ecology (e.g. diet and habitat) to move, their physiology (e.g. metabolism and reproduction) to stay put and acclimate to a further 2 C warming, or decline,” explains study co-author Stephen Simpson, a biologist at the University of Exeter, by email.
Based on the research, then, many of these North Sea species could indeed face serious challenges. And that’s surely why the study was newsworthy, especially in the UK. But where did people read into this the idea that this would take away fish and chips?
The answer appears to the press release for the study — “Warming seas pose habitat risk for fishy favorites” — which was fairly cautious, but did set journalists down this path with a quotation at the end from Simpson:
Our models predict cold water species will be squeezed out, with warmer water fish likely to take their place. For sustainable UK fisheries, we need to move on from haddock & chips and look to Southern Europe for our gastronomic inspiration.
Note the phrase “sustainable UK fisheries” – if seafood in the UK is to be sourced from the North Sea, then yes, the new research might suggest a looming challenge to making fish and chips from fish caught in these waters.
But this ignores the matter of imports: Cod and haddock for fish and chips in the UK today mostly do not come from the North Sea. According to the website of the UK’s National Federation of Fish Friers:
A total of 62% of fish sold in fish and chip shops is cod and 25% is haddock. 90% of shops use FAS [Frozen at Sea] fillets – these fish are caught by large modern trawlers operating in carefully managed fishing grounds in the icy, clear Arctic waters of the Barents Sea and North Atlantic, caught by Icelandic, Norwegian, Russian and Faroese vessels. Stringent, science-based and strictly enforced regulations have ensured good management of cod and haddock stocks in these waters, and the catches from this area accounts for 97% of the total Northern Hemisphere cod quota.
To check into this further, I contacted the Edinburgh-based Seafish, a UK-based body funded by industry through a levy on catch, but originally set up by government to ensure sustainable fisheries. The answer was consistent with the above statement.
“Cod and haddock stocks in the North Sea are at very healthy levels and the UK fishing industry places great importance on careful management of fish stocks for future generations,” said the organization’s trade marketing manager Andy Gray. “However, to meet demand, approximately 95% of the cod that we consume in the UK is actually imported from Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.”
As for haddock, a Seafish fact sheet explains that except for in Scotland, most of what is consumed tends to come not from the North Sea but from Iceland and the Barents Sea. Indeed, both cod and haddock count among the UK’s top five imported fish species, according to Seafish.
So it looks like whatever happens in the North Sea, the UK is bringing in a large volume of fish imports from different regions, especially colder and more northerly ones. That’s not to say that other fisheries aren’t also potentially subject to impacts from climate change — but that wasn’t the focus of the current research.
I also contacted the original researchers, noting that I was having a hard time directly connecting their research with the issue of fish and chips availability, due to the fact that most fish served as fish and chips in the UK seems to come from abroad.
Lead author Louise Rutterford responded by email, noting that the fish that she studied do represent 68 percent of the commercial North Sea catch. So there could indeed be a need for dietary shifts as climate change progresses. Rutterford also called the North Sea a “canary in the coalmine” since it is seeing such a rapid change in climate.
However, she acknowledged that “in terms of where fish and chips come from you’re right, since we still want to eat traditional colder water fish much of it has to be imported since the North Sea has experienced massive stock reductions due to fishing pressure and now much tighter management means less is landed.”
“The current situation is that most of what we eat in the UK we import, and most of what we catch we export to mainland Europe,” added Simpson by email. “Our diet has remained static while the fish have moved.”
So, in sum — global warming is going to change the world in many ways. And that often won’t be good for flora and fauna — those we eat, and also those we don’t. Moreover, as species shift ranges in response to changing temperatures, what counts as “local” food in a given place may also change, perhaps a great deal.
But that doesn’t mean every media doom story about climate change is true. The research in question does present cause for concern — and warmer seas will surely imperil many species. But it seems doubtful, based on this study alone, that fish and chips is going anywhere any time soon.