Europeans’ love of fish and seafood

By Kamila Sfugier Tollik

Fish is crucial to a nutritious diet

Humans have been eating freshwater and near-shore marine organisms at least since the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. This large appetite for fish and seafood products (FAPs) is healthy since FAPs provide Vitamins D, A, and B12; selenium; omega-3s fatty acids; and other nutrients.

Depending on their fat content, fish are classified as lean, semi-fatty, or fatty. Fish oils from fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, smoked trout, and sardine are the richest source of DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids, and you can read more about fish fatty acids here.

Nowadays in the Anthropocene, fish may also be contaminated by environmental pollutants such as methylmercury, PCBs, and dioxins. To guarantee people can experience the benefits from fish while reducing the dangers from contaminants, food safety agencies recommend eating fish twice a week, including one portion of lean fish and one portion of fish high in omega-3s.

Looking at the European fish market

The latest Eurobarometer survey on EU consumer habits regarding fishery and aquaculture products states that the majority of the respondents (64%) eat fish several times per month, mostly at home. Europeans consider FAPs to be healthy and tasty, and these are the main reasons behind the purchase and consumption. Nearly 80% of consumers buy their products at the grocery store, supermarket, or hypermarket where frozen products are the most preferred category, slightly ahead of fresh and tinned products.

According to the report by European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture (The EU fish market, 2021), apparent consumption of FAPs in the EU amounted to 12.3 million tonnes in 2019. The average EU citizen consumed 23,97 kg of fish and seafood, of which 18,33 kg originated from fishing activities and 5,64 kg from aquaculture.

                                  Let’s dive deeper into the European wallets…

In 2019, households in the EU spent 3% more on buying FAPs than the year before. Italians spent the most on FAPs, followed by Spain and France, compared to the other EU Member States. However, the Portuguese are the real fishery lovers with the highest expenditure per capita (371 EUR) on FAPs while the average European spent less than a third of that (110 EUR). 

EU production, reaching 5,06 million tonnes in 2019, mainly focused on pelagic (herring, sprats and mackerel) and demersal (cod, haddock, and flatfish) fish. In 2019, European Union’s demand on FAPs made it the world’s number two seafood importer in volume (6,28 million tonnes), just after China (6.34 million tonnes), but number one in terms of value. 

In 2019, the EU self-sufficiency for fish and seafood was 41,2%, and it is calculated as the ratio of domestic production over domestic consumption. Accordingly, the 9th of July in 2019 was declared as the EU’s ‘Fish Dependence Day’, the day when EU consumers began to eat fish imported from non-EU countries as their own production was no longer sufficient. Although COVID-19 has impacted the European seafood market and slightly decreased imports from developing countries in 2020, overall demand for seafood has remained stable in Europe during the pandemic. Compared with 2019, imports decreased by 9% in value. This was due to the significant decrease of imports of high-value species mainly destined for the Hotels, Restaurants and Catering sector. 

Looking ahead

Consumers play a fundamental role in shaping future markets. Based on the Eurobarometer survey, we can assume certain coming trends. Sustainability and the environmental footprint are emerging as crucial features when Europeans select their seafood. In Sweden, the environmental, social, and ethical impacts are considered as the most important aspects when buying FAPs. To empower consumers, the European Commission is planning to propose a sustainable food labeling framework. Another key possibility for the FAPs market is the introduction of new species. Tuna, salmon, and cod are the most consumed species in the EU, but 61% of EU consumers agree that they like to try new products and species. Moving towards herbivorous fish production like grey mullet can have biological and economical potential. The growing demand for a greater diversity of fish species confirms the relevance of the Farm to Fork strategy for an environmentally friendly food system. 

Finally, Europeans’ love for fish and seafood products shows no sign of slowing down, so securing the efficiency and sustainability of the sector requires combined actions from all the actors. You too can play a role by requesting sustainable seafood! 

Peer-edited by Kaylee Helfrich, PhD in Nutrition

Infographic credit: Mihaela Bozukova, PhD Candidate in Computational Genomics

Featured picture credit: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu

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