The cost of importing fresh tuna into the UK since trade with main supplier Sri Lanka was cut off by the EU in January has stabilized after a frantic month or so, two companies told Undercurrent News.
The price for fresh and chilled yellowfin imports on alternative supply routes, like the Maldives, are back down after a spike in February, and now rest just a little higher than 2014 prices.
“Supplies are consistent and the quality is good,” said Laky Zervudachi, director of sustainability and epicurean with Direct Seafoods, referring to the Maldives.
“Prices are high, but not excessive as they were. Perhaps 5% or 10% higher than we were paying before the ban.”
He did warn that the Maldives monsoon season was approaching, and given the artisanal nature of the fishery there, this could lead to a tightening of supply and increased prices again.
“Prices dropped dramatically for a few weeks in February after a massive high, they then crept back up and now appear to be stable around the £11- 12 per kilogram mark,” confirmed a second UK importer.
“They are currently just slightly above what we were paying last year. We have had no issue with supply, and have not needed to find new sources as we already have a diverse geographical spread.”
In the month after the ban first came in, price quotes to Direct for Indian tuna rose around 20%, and on Maldives tuna, 60%, said Zervudachi. This put the latter, as a ball-park figure, cost price, at between £18 and £20/ kg.
Both sources agreed the drop in price was likely due to demand softening after the extraordinary hike in prices seen immediately after the ban was enforced by the EU, in mid-January.
“Quite a few buyers switched out of fresh, or accepted being out of stock, unwilling to pay the prices,” said the second source.
“We decided to pay the high prices rather than go out of stock, which did hit our profit for four or five weeks; however, it helps in the long term with our supplier and retailer relationships,” he added.
There may also have been an element of suppliers "seeing what they could get away with" when importers initially scrambled for new suppliers, bumping up prices, Zervudachi suggested.
Volumes of fresh tuna coming into the UK are now slightly down on pre-ban levels, said Zervudachi. Direct was possibly not selling quite as much, and there was a chance some foodservice outlets had removed yellowfin from their menus considering the price peak.
Latest from the EU
The most recent news out of Sri Lanka on the ban was that Jan Zahradil, a vice-chair of the EU Committee on international trade and member of EU parliament, reportedly suggested the EU's ban on Sri Lankan fishery exports could be over in a matter of months.
On April 16, an EU spokesperson told Undercurrent, "Sri Lanka has expressed political interest for addressing problems, but the main problematic issues are still open".
This includes political measures to improve the fisheries situation not yet being approved, and plans for a vessel monitoring system subsequently being scrapped, with further progress on this undetermined.
"The Commission will maintain cooperation with Sri Lanka until being certain that they fulfill their commitments and achieve tangibles results," the EU said.
One door closes...
Direct is treating the ban on Sri Lanka imports – enforced by the EU because the country apparently had not taken enough measures to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – as a long-term measure.
“It is a case of 'expect the worst and hope for the best,” confirmed Zervudachi. “But it does mean we have the chance to look around, make some new investments and contacts elsewhere, which is always valuable.”
He has hopes for the Phillipines' handline yellowfin tuna fishery; a project set up by Blueyou Consulting, with whom he is in talks, he said.
Blueyou started the Artesmar fisheries improvement project (FIP) in the Philippines in 2013, where the company has developed a vessel registration and catch documentation scheme for the artisanal yellowfin tuna hand-lining fleet.
A traceability system that ensures every tuna is tagged allows for it to be tracked from the vessel to final products, the consultancy firm said.
In December 2014 two processing companies then underwent the first chain of custody audits for the Artesmar FIP. The two companies, Meliomar and Alpitrade, successfully passed the audit based on the traceability system developed by Blueyou.
Zervudachi also pointed to the situation in Indonesia, where a new fisheries minister has cracked down on IUU fishing and stepped up FIP efforts. “We see some interesting possibilities there, with the [International] Pole and Line Foundation.”
“This ban on Sri Lanka is likely to last a year, in my opinion. It needs to really, if the EU wants it to be a real punishment and a deterrent in the future. Is it really a credible measure if it stops after six months?”
Indonesia's own pole-and-line and hand-line fisheries association has been gaining members, and in February 2015 stood at 14 companies; representing 70% of the pole-and-line and hand-line sector.