Some English fish and chip shops could begin serving locally caught small sharks after the government reopened targeted fisheries in a boost to an industry buffeted by inflation, the cost of living crisis and the Ukraine war.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this week announced that UK fishermen would be able to catch the Northeast Atlantic spur dog, a species of small shark.
Defra’s joint move with the EU came after the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, a marine conservation body, said stock of the species had recovered to levels that supported fishing.
The verdict will mean the reintroduction of “rock salmon”, a name intended to appeal more than “shark” or “dogfish”, which was served in some restaurants in southern England until a ban on catching it took effect in 2010.
The return of “rock and chips”, which has been criticised by some environmental groups, comes as the fish and chip industry suffers from rising input costs and a 35 per cent levy on imports of Russian seafood.
The wholesale price of cod fillets increased from £9 per kilogramme to almost £12 per kg between 2021 and 2023, according to the National Federation of Fish Friers, a trade body. The cost of processed potatoes has also jumped.
NFFF president Andrew Cook said the government’s decision was “good news for British fishermen and fish and chip shops”, adding that a supply crunch had forced vendors to source from beyond Europe.
“We’ve been looking at all sorts of alternatives from South African hake to US Pacific hake and cod from Norway, so anything that takes a bit of pressure off supplies,” he said.
The UK is a net importer of fish, including some spur dog from the US and Canada, and exports the majority of its domestic catch. In 2021, UK trawlers landed £921mn of sea fish products, more than half of which was destined for export, while the country imported £3.1bn worth of seafood.
Fish and chip shops have traditionally used cod or haddock, although a study in 2019 found that by-catch spur dog, which is landed unintentionally, was sold in some outlets. But in July last year, the UK imposed a 35 per cent tariff on seafood imports from Russia, which in 2020 represented 10 per cent of cod imports.
John Mc neill, owner of Johnny Macs Colchester, welcomed the return of rock salmon but cautioned that it would not solve all of the problems facing small outlets.
“The local customer doesn’t expect to pay restaurant prices,” he said. “Most of our fish is from Russia; it’s been hit by the tariffs. We’re getting towards the summer season, when the seaside fish and chips vans will open. That will put demand up and increase pressure on supply until November.”
But Charlotte Coombes from the Marine Conservation Society, a charity, warned that spur dog remained “a vulnerable species” and that its reintroduction had “the potential to cause populations to decline again if not done very carefully”.
Spurdog take 10 years to mature, may only breed once every few years and are pregnant for up to 22 months, according to the MCS.
Melissa Moore, head of policy at marine conservation group Oceana, said she was “appalled” by the reintroduction.
“The UK rightly introduced a ban on the import and export of shark fins, so this new development appears to be a complete contradiction,” she said. “We urge the government to put nature first and ban targeted fishing for small sharks in UK waters.”
Defending the move, Cook from the NFFF said he hoped more members would start selling spur dog.
“We need to look at alternative species. It’s all about having enough fish to serve the industry. When tourism opens up this summer we are facing a crisis.”