Ultimately, the fish processing sector is as strong as its transport links to reach its customers.
Of the 2009 deliveries, just over 10 per cent was fresh fish landed from local boats for the auction. The port's fish processing district, Capécure, is also equipped with Europe's largest road haulage terminal, with 112 loading bays to handle a daily average of about 800 tonnes of fish a day.
The 40 hectares of Capécure last had a facelift some 20 years and there is scope for regeneration in places to meet changing patterns of use. To the north, the 40 hectare site of a former dockside steelworks has already been cleared and some parcels of land have been both redeveloped and occupied.
Last October, the fish charcutier Océan Délices opened a 3,200 sq m production unit where the management is quietly confident of double digit growth in sales figures from last year's EUR 5.1m sales.
Last month the French multiple retailer Intermarché was due to open a processing and distribution centre to consolidate its Boulogne installations for subsidiaries Capitaine Houat and SCAMer respectively.
"Marine Harvest is just one of the companies currently considering its options on the former Comilog site," Pascal Labarre told TheFishSite.
Labarre works for both the Boulogne Chamber of Commerce (which holds the port's facilities management concession) and the Capécure 2020 mission, which is overseen by the Communauté d' agglomération du Boulonnais, a local authority body.
The scope of Capécure 2020 extends beyond just Boulogne, reflecting the wider remit of the agglomération. The current four-year phase started last summer and runs until 2013: its purpose is to optimise the use of fish arriving in the port, to develop fish processing and reinforce the area's logistics, as well as fostering innovation and backing research.
The port is now home to a fleet of just five deepsea trawlers and three freezer trawlers, fishing primarily for pollack and saithe, earning ecolabel accreditation earlier this year. "In the medium term, we need to think about where our fish will come from," Labarre explains.
Last year owner of the port of Boulogne, the Nord Pas de Calais region, commissioned a report into the feasibility of fish farming in the region. This report will be delivered in September. There are 140 km of coastline in the Nord Pas de Calais region, of which just over two thirds is protected.
At present, the nearest existing marine fish farming on a national scale would be the 2,500 tonnes a year of sea bass and sea bream raised by Aquanord at Gravelines. Given the declining fresh fish landings at Boulogne, aquaculture has to be considered not just for human consumption but also for repopulating wild stocks.
The Boulogne study will be looking closely at the Norwegian aquaculture sector, with its collaborative knowledge-sharing ethos. While the country is one of the world's largest Atlantic salmon producers, the Boulogne team notes that Norway has also successfully raised other species on a smaller scale where wild stocks have declined.
One of the positive factors that is not lost on Boulogne is that aquaculture allows stock to be drawn off as needed, balancing supply and demand more closely than can be managed with wild catches. "In this area, we have to handle 50,000 tonnes of offcuts and other byproducts," observes Labarre.
The shift away from fish counters to self service among multiple retailers means a rising level of standardisation. Wildcaught fish fillets have to be adapted to consumer packaging, leaving growing volumes of odd-shaped offcuts in addition to fish frames and viscera. Boulogne has developed a high degree of expertise in secondary processing for industrial ingredients of all descriptions. Intensive hand grading is carried out by companies such as Valofish, which recovers 2,000 tonnes of good quality downstream coproducts a year.
In March 2009, before departing to take up his new position at the European Commission, former fisheries minister Michel Barnier summed up the national objectives for the seafood industry as follows: "...to add value to 100 per cent of the catch so as to meet consumer demand and preserve fish stocks."
This drive to do more with existing catches has been an ongoing part of the Boulogne's marine economy for years. COPALIS, which started out as a fish waste cooperative is now extracting high value coproducts, such as ingredients like collagen for cosmetics as well as strategic food grade ingredients such as flavourings, oils and peptides (which can find their way into chocolate confectionery products).
There are plans to develop a methane digester that will extract energy from the remaining residues. From the days when it tapped into the cooling circuit from the steel plant, COPALIS is re-engineering its environmental profile as radically as its product base.
Collaborating with the technology development cluster Aquimer, COPALIS is working alongside the deepsea fleet operator Euronor, another coproduct specialist Ecopsi, based in Arras, and researchers at two universities in northern France to perfect the extraction of useable lipid fractions from fish waste and minerals from shellfish waste. Aquimer's Seamineroil project is intended to evaluate new properties and applications for these fractions: the EUR 2 million project is part-funded by state and local authorities in Nord Pas de Calais.
A further consequence of changing retail buying patterns will be an increasingly decisive requirement to add value to fish products, if the experience of the meat industry is anything to go by. "The transition from selling pieces of fish to added value fish products will reduce the proportions of fish in the finished product and open the way for other processors and skills in the area," observes Labarre.
There is no reason, other than historical happenstance, why vegetable, cereal or even meat processors have not set up around Boulogne sur Mer: many of the food handling skills they need are readily available on this stretch of the French coast. In the foreseeable medium term, the incentives to diversify food processing around a strategically located multimodal transport hub are convincing ones.
"The time constraints in transporting fish are greater than those in any other sector: when fish leaves a filleting line in Boulogne, it needs rapid and efficient transport to reach the customer in top condition," warns Labarre. The typical shelf life of value-added products at nearby Océan Délices, for example, ranges from five to seven days.
Time and the tides, which see a steady stream of inshore fishing boats returning to land fresh fish, wait for no-one so the saying goes. Much the same can be said for the activities on Boulogne sur Mer's shoreline, however they develop in the future.