This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 5 / 2020.
As in other countries the pandemic’s impact on the hotel, restaurant, and catering sector was brutal. Producers of canned fish products, an important part of the Latvian processing industry, however experienced an uptick in demand as consumers took to stockpiling shelf stable goods and those with long expiry dates in the early days of the virus’ spread. The canning sector forms an important part of the Latvian fish processing sector with a tradition that goes back over a century. Today there are a handful of large companies that are the main producers and exporters of canned products down from some 20 firms a couple of decades ago. These companies belong to the Union of Latvian Fish Processing Industry, an association that decides the criteria behind the label Riga sprats in oil, which the companies use to market their canned sprats. The raw material for this well-known product, exports of which go around the world, comes from the Baltic Sea. The canning industry faced a crisis in 2015 when Russia embargoed canned products from Latvia. Since Russia was the single most important market for several producers this development contributed to the restructuring and consolidation among canned fish producers. Since then canneries have expanded their export markets mainly to the EU, but also to other countries such as Canada, Japan, and the US. Processing facilities are certified to EU standards, but also to other international standards such as International Featured Standards (IFS), British Retail Consortium (BRC), or GOST (for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries). Cans account for only part of the output from the processing sector, other products include smoked, salted, and preserved fish. According to the 2019 STECF report on the EU fish processing sector, Latvian processors are active importers and exporters of fish and seafood. Data from the Central Statistics Bureau of Latvia show that exports of processed fish products increased steadily in value from 2016 to reach EUR93m in 2019, a growth of 42% over the period, while volumes increased by 17%.On the other hand, the export value of fresh, chilled or frozen fish declined 11% to EUR73m. Raw materials, other than those available from Latvia’s Baltic Sea catches, are supplied by other countries. Imports of chilled or frozen fish between 2016 and 2019 increased 2% in value to EUR128m, while the volume actually fell 4% to 64,000 tonnes. The main trading partners for supply of raw material are Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland.
The Latvian fleet is active in the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Riga, coastal waters, and also in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of western Africa. In the Baltic Sea the main catch in terms of volumes is of sprat followed by herring, cod, and flounder. In the Gulf of Riga on the other hand, Baltic herring is the primary catch followed by European smelt, while the coastal fishery targets mostly herring and flounder.
Aquaculture in Latvia consists primarily of the production of common carp farmed in earthen ponds. The volume of fish produced has remained broadly stable for the last decade at about 500 tonnes. Although carp production still dominates the total output from the aquaculture sector, its relative importance has gradually decreased over the last decade, from about nine tenths of the total production to about three fourths. The reason is the gradual increase in the production of other species including rainbow trout, sturgeon, crucian carp and pike. Production of these species has led to 26% increase in the total farmed fish production in the decade to 2014 to 680 tonnes.
The Latvian seafood processing sector produces a wide variety of products based on locally sourced as well as imported raw materials. Although per capita consumption of fish and seafood at 16 kg per capita is below the EU average (23 kg/capita), local supermarkets offer an impressive range of products – canned, smoked, salted, marinated, and fresh using many different species.
A number of fish species are produced by the fish farming sector in Latvia, but of the species where data is publicly available only three or four are produced in significant quantities. These include carp, sturgeon and rainbow trout. The volumes produced of other species, including tench, crucian carp, and pike, are between 10 and 15 tonnes a year. Rainbow trout production jumped in 2014, the last year for which data is available, by a factor of 9 from the year before, from 4 tonnes to 35 tonnes. The huge increase in production is all the more impressive if one considers that average annual production for the 10 years to 2013 was 4.3 tonnes.
The fisheries sector in Latvia is multifaceted and is represented by fishing, processing, trading, and fish farming. The fishing segment relies on the Latvian coastline that has a length of 500 km along the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea as well as 2,400 sq. km of inland waters.