Boosting global demand for Norwegian seafood

EM1 21 GP R Larsen NSCThe Norwegian Seafood Council celebrates its 50th anniversary

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 1 / 2021.

The Norwegian Seafood Council is the highly successful trade promotion body for the Norwegian fisheries and aquaculture industries. Owned by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, the council is a public company with a mandate to increase the value of Norwegian seafood in a responsible manner. Renate Larsen, managing director of the council, discusses here the organisation’s response to the pandemic, its recent achievements, and future challenges.

The closure of the HoReCa sector and restrictions on large family gatherings due to the pandemic have had a significant impact on Norwegian seafood exports. What is the Norwegian Seafood Council’s prognosis for exports in the coming months? How can the organisation support the industry in countering these impacts of the pandemic?

The Corona pandemic has caused great shifts in how people across the world buy and consume seafood. This has impacted both where seafood is bought, and also what products are in demand, with more people cooking and eating seafood in the home. The Norwegian seafood industry overall have proven adaptable in this uncertain landscape and continue stable deliveries which means Norwegian seafood exports have remained strong for most species despite the pandemic.

The Norwegian Seafood Council works together with the seafood industry to increase demand for Norwegian seafood in many of our biggest markets around the world. With the near complete closure of the HoReCa segment in several markets, and increase in home consumption, as a marketing organisation we have continuously adapted our approach throughout the pandemic to meet the changing needs of customers in various markets. This includes more inspiration-based communications towards consumers, and increased focus on digital advertising. Towards business customers we have focused on reassuring the value chain that they can trust stable, sustainable and safe deliveries of seafood from Norway despite the pandemic.

Whereas the export data for 2020 shows a small decline in value compared to 2019, it is still a remarkably strong performance compared to other export sectors. 2020 was the second strongest year for Norwegian seafood in history, with a value of 105.7bn NOK. We expect 2021 to still be challenging for the industry, but we remain cautiously optimistic on behalf of the seafood industry as demand for sustainably sourced seafood remains high and our insight suggests people are increasingly looking to shift their diets to more sustainable and healthy proteins, where Norwegian seafood is an important part of the solution.

How would you characterise changes in consumer behaviour over the last 10 months with regard to seafood consumption on the major export markets for Norwegian seafood? Are these changes reflected on the domestic market? How is the Council and the industry it represents anticipating and responding to these changes?

The dominant change in the marketplace is the reduction in the restaurant and catering sector, which has hit the United States and Europe particularly hard, including the Norwegian market. In Asia, where the effects of the pandemic have been more contained, the shift is not as profound.

On the flip side, we have seen a major increase in seafood consumption in the home and also an acceleration of the growth in online grocery shopping, where Asia continues to lead the way. Whilst we believe the HoReCa segment will return post-pandemic, we believe more home consumption of seafood could be a lasting change in the wake of all this. And as for the growth in the online retail segment, I believe this is still only the beginning.

Norway is a signatory to the Paris Agreement and in February this year strengthened its commitment to emission reductions in 2030 by 50-55% (as opposed to 40%) compared with 1990. Does the Norwegian Seafood Council have a climate strategy that contributes to this commitment? What are its main elements?

As an organization working towards promoting sustainable seafood consumption, we play an important role. Eating more sustainably harvested seafood is a simple and effective step to reduce your carbon footprint. Our activities do not have significant impact on the environment, although as an international organization we actively work towards reducing air travel through increased use of digital meetings. We are a certified Eco-lighthouse® organization and have been a member of the UN Global Compact program since 2009.

Salmon is by far Norway’s most important single seafood export. The production of this large biomass has been challenged by issues of sea lice and escapes and there is a vocal lobby that accuses the industry of harm to the environment and indifference to animal welfare. How does the Council deal with such claims?

There are unfortunately still many misconceptions and myths surrounding Norwegian salmon farming and we work continuously to show transparency and communicate the latest facts and developments. The truth is that Norwegian salmon farming is some of the most sustainable protein production there is, with Norwegian aquaculture companies topping the Coller FAIRR initiative’s ranking of 50 most sustainable protein producers in the world 3 years running.

Whilst there will always be a footprint of any farming and large-scale food production, the Norwegian industry has been incredibly successful in tackling challenges such as antibiotics, escapes and improving fish welfare. There is still room for further improvements, and we will continue to see the Norwegian industry evolving in the next few years, particularly when it comes to feed and offshore farming.

Over the last few years consumption of seafood in Norway has been declining in particular of salmon and cod and especially among young people. Part of the decline has been attributed to an increase in price prompting consumers to opt for other proteins. What role is the Council playing in attempts to reverse this fall in consumption? And how can young people be encouraged to eat more fish?

It is true that seafood consumption among the younger populations has been declining in most western markets in recent years. But we believe there is great momentum to buck this worrying trend as sustainable seafood ticks so many of the boxes of what is important to young consumers
– focus on responsible harvesting and production practises, foods supporting mental and physical wellbeing as well as indulgence and convenience. Seafood has great potential to take a larger share of the voice and we all have a responsibility to speak up for seafood as part of the solution. The Norwegian Seafood Council is working in Norway and abroad to educate and inspire younger consumers to eat more seafood and to make informed choices about the food they put on their plates and in their bodies. Recruiting new seafood lovers is perhaps one of our most important challenges going forward, and this is also why we have recently partnered with international non-profit organisation EAT to promote increased consumption of sustainable seafood.

This year was the 50th anniversary of salmon farming in Norway. The industry has shown exponential growth in production enabled partly by the evolution of technology and the development of markets. Apart from these, what do you consider the most important trends to characterise the sector and where do you foresee opportunities and challenges in the future?

The aquaculture sector is a very innovative sector and there are many exciting developments in the pipeline. Thanks to Norway’s system of giving development concessions to new technology and farming systems, the Norwegian salmon farming companies have many interesting ocean farming projects ongoing, and the industry also benefits from knowledge sharing from the extensive experience Norway has of the offshore industry. I believe we will continue to see innovative leaps in the industry also in the future which will benefit not only Norwegian salmon farmers, but also aquaculture technology globally. The world needs to eat more food from the oceans, and effective and sustainable aquaculture is crucial to this, and I believe as an industry it still has great potential for growth.

You have led the Norwegian Seafood Council from 2016, since when Norway’s seafood exports have increased by about 17% (to the end of 2020). This is a respectable performance, but annual growth in exports has been significantly lower since 2016 than in the preceding years. What do you attribute this to and how can growth be returned to its previous levels?

The Norwegian seafood industry’s model will always favour responsible management over exponential growth, meaning export volumes remain relatively stable over the years, allowing for growth only where wild fish stocks and salmon production can be harvested in a sustainable manner. Our job as an organisation is to help the Norwegian seafood industry develop markets for Norwegian seafood, increasing demand and willingness to pay a premium for the Norwegian origin, regardless of volumes. The value of Norwegian seafood exports has increased by 17.2 percent, up from 91.6bn NOK in 2016, to 107.4bn NOK in 2020.

Norway is in the final stages of negotiating a free trade agreement with China. What are the implications of such a deal for the Norwegian seafood industry? Where does the Council stand when Chinese policies conflict with Norwegian values?

As one of the world’s leading seafood producers, and second largest exporter, we depend on good market access and trade agreements. We export around 95 percent of the seafood we produce and harvest and thus depend on international trade as an industry. Free trade and open dialogue between nations enables us to communicate and find common paths to solutions and solve conflicts.

As the leader of an organisation synonymous with Norwegian seafood, are you an avid seafood fan yourself? What are your personal favourites among types of seafood and ways of preparing them?

I grew up in a small fishing village in the North of Norway, so fish and seafood has always been an important part of who I am. Naturally, it is a major part of my diet too – and I eat fish and seafood at least 3-4 days a week. It is hard to choose just one favourite, but for a weekday dinner you can’t go wrong with home-made haddock fishcakes, oven baked salmon or on those really hectic days – a take away sushi. On the weekends, I try to follow the seasons and right now that means Norwegian skrei. Our shellfish is also at their very best in the wintertime, so that is another favourite. And finally, I love the traditional Norwegian dish cod lutefisk, which is mostly eaten at Christmas in Norway, but in my family, we enjoy it all year round.