October 22, 2013 3:45 pm

Greece’s lead in fishing slips through the net

Sea Bass for sale in fishmongers©Dreamstime

Sea Bass for sale in fishmongers

As if years of economic and financial turmoil were not enough, Greece has lost its crown as the world’s biggest producer of sea bass and bream – to Turkey.

A squeeze on bank financing and reduced demand among Mediterranean consumers, the leading buyers of the white fish in Europe, have hit Greece’s sea bass and bream industry, one of its most important agricultural exports.

Until last year Greece had been the leader of the €1.5bn industry in Europe, but according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the country’s production of sea bass and bream is projected to fall 7 per cent to 94,000 tonnes in 2013. Turkey is likely to see its output rise more than 12 per cent to 108,000 tonnes.

Fish, mainly farmed sea bass and bream, is Greece’s second largest agricultural export after fruits and nuts, surpassing olive oil and cheese, according to the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board.

A sharp rise in overall sea bass and bream supplies has weighed on prices at a time when feed costs are rising, squeezing margins sharply. Many of the highly leveraged Greek producers have been hit, with companies “suffering from tight credit and rising costs on feed, putting many firms in the red”, said the FAO.

Ferit Rad, professor of fisheries at Turkey’s University of Mersin, said many farms in need of cash had been forced to harvest their cages and sell small fish. This in turn had had a negative impact on overall tonnages produced.

Nireus, a leading Greek sea bass and bream group, fell into the red last year, blaming “lower average sales prices of small size fish and due to the increased production cost”, while Dias, another company, filed for bankruptcy protection last month, ahead of a planned merger with competitor Selonda.

Greek companies are also suffering from the weakness in traditional European markets. Italy, which is the largest consumer of sea bass and bream, “continues to suffer from falling purchasing power among consumers”, with both import value and volumes down for the first half of this year, Audun Lem at the FAO said.

In some markets, such as France, the increase in catches of wild cod from northern Europe at attractive prices may have created additional competition for sea bass and bream, though normally the species are not seen as direct competitors in the fish market.

Lara Barazi-Yeroulanos, chief executive of family-owned Kefalonia Fisheries in Greece, said the country’s farmed sea bass and bream sector needed more professional managers for it to recover. “The industry needs to seriously consider the way these companies are managed,” she said.

On the other hand, the Turkish industry has been supported by a growing economy and government aquaculture subsidies. An industry-wide marketing effort to promote seafood to new markets has helped Turkish companies in the sector to diversify their export destinations to include northern Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

Turkish companies have also been pushing ahead with developing filleted fish products for export markets, which are easier to sell in supermarkets in countries that have not been big sea bass and bream consumers.

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