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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Cod farming aims to save favourite fish
By Helen Britton
BBC Money Programme

Cod on fishing boat
UK fishermen return with less and less cod

Britons currently consume in excess of 270,000 tonnes of cod every year, but with wild stocks dwindling, the future of the UK's favourite fish is looking doubtful.

However a glimmer of hope has appeared in the form of a family business in the Shetland Isles, Johnson Sea Farms.

They may have come up with a solution to keep cod firmly on the menu by starting the UK's first commercial cod farm.

Brothers, Angus and Ivor Johnson, the owners of Johnson Sea Farms, started out as fishermen before moving into salmon farming in the early 80s.

Their business flourished but in 1994 they sold out, just in time. By the mid-nineties the gold rush that had been the salmon farming industry was over.

From codling to profit

They looked for new business opportunities. Farming cod was a possibility, but initially was deemed too complicated because young cod have a tendency to cannibalism.

Karol Rzepkowski,  Johnson's Cod
Karol Rzepkowski hopes he can sell cod to City investors

However, the increasing rarity of wild cod in conjunction with the continued high demand for the fish has pushed up the price of cod.

Now, it just might be financially viable to farm this highly priced fish.

So, the Johnsons have started a new company Johnson's Cod, and brought in marketing whiz kid Karol Rzepkowski as a director.

In order to get the new cod venture off the ground Karol has come up with an ingenious scheme.

The plan is to raise 2.5m in the city which will allow Johnson Cod to buy 1.5m codling and raise them to maturity.

The full grown cod would then be sold and investors left with healthy profits. The question is will City investors take the bait?

The bad aftertaste of salmon farming

Overshadowing all this is the experience of what happened to farmed salmon, an industry burdened by a seemingly endless stream of bad publicity.

Scottish salmon farm
Salmon farming's environmental record is under scrutiny

Environmentalists have complained about the chemicals used to treat fish diseases, the pollution from salmon farms that goes directly into the sea, and the detrimental effect of fish farms on wild salmon populations.

Investors face the threat that environmentalists, who see salmon farming as a catastrophe, will extend their fight against the farming of cod.

A flood of cod?

The early signs don't look good.

Don Staniford from the Salmon Farm Protest Group sees cod farming as a 'disaster waiting to happen'.

With the latest farmed salmon scare in January raising questions and controversy over how safe farmed salmon is to eat, City investors will have to believe in Karol's ability to distance his cod farming project from this bad publicity.

Even if the Johnsons do manage to convince investors to back their project, they will have other hurdles to jump.

One of the most daunting problems salmon farmers have had to face is overproduction and the corresponding drop in prices.

Chances are the same thing will happen all over again.

Nutreco, the world's biggest farmed salmon producer, will soon be producing three times more farmed cod than the Johnsons, at its sites in Norway.

Magnus Skretting, who is in charge of Nutreco's cod project, believes that "the Norwegian industry can produce easily 100,000 tonnes within 2010 and then double it within 2013".

Organic cod

The Norwegians are deadly serious about making cod work. Their government has already invested 20m into researching and developing this new farmed product.

Fish and chips
Cod and chips is getting pricey as wild fish stocks dwindle

If Norway can pull this off then it could be hard for the Johnsons to get the price they need for their cod.

So, the Johnsons' cod farming project looks risky but they have a plan; they believe that by making their farm organic they will produce a premium product that will not directly compete with any other cod.

The hope is that organic status will also help them to avoid the negative image of farmed fish and allow consumer confidence to be restored.

The plan sounds reasonable enough but they are still waiting to see if they will get organic status.

If cod farming works, it could secure the future of our favourite fish whilst also giving a much needed boost to the UK's troubled fish farmers. Over the next year or so, we'll find out if they've got it right.

Talks on EU fish catches deal
28 Jan 04  |  Scotland
Fish legal challenge over quotas
19 Jan 04  |  Scotland

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