In a stew over fish…

“Fish Stew” by Nigel_Brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0

From fish’n’chips to calamares

In my childhood days, my experience of fish was usually limited to a somewhat greasy lump of batter, with a trace of white matter within it, presumably cod, accompanied by equally greasy, soggy chips. They were served in newspaper, liberally sprinkled with salt and vinegar. Perhaps my palate-memory is rather jaded remembering fish’n’chips in the 1950s and 60s, and comparing that ‘treat’ with the fishy delights I enjoy nowadays, but it was not until I travelled abroad that I came to appreciate the wonders of fish and seafood. The turning point was, perhaps, during the year I spent (1969-70) in Granada, in southern Spain, giving conversation classes as an English assistant at the Instituto Padre Suárez and the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras: at mealtimes at a university residential college, my Spanish student friends used to fight over who would have the calamares I left on my plate… until, that is, I realised they must be a bit special, tried them and acquired the taste!

The fact is that, thanks initially to the railway network, later to refrigerated lorries, every town and village in Spain was then (and is now) able to enjoy fish and seafood caught less than 24 hours before. On our frequent journeys south via Madrid, we see dozens of refrigerated lorries heading to Madrid from A Coruña or Gijón. The Spanish as a race have always loved their pescado and mariscos! Spending a lot of time in Spain as I now do, I make the most of the varied and delicious fish and seafood, a far cry from my experience of fish’n’chips in the 1950s.

Devon: my fish heaven

Fast forward 50 years to Devon: as part of my ‘weight control’ regimen, my main meal three days a week is fish and salad, favourites being salmon, trout and scallops. These are delivered to our door on Wednesday mornings by a mobile fishmonger from Brixham; to preserve his anonymity let’s call him Jack Sprat. In fact, it was back in the late 80s, soon after moving to Devon, that I first became aware of the huge variety of fish and seafood caught locally. One morning I received a phone-call from Dartmouth Police asking me if I could interpret for them over the phone. They had with them a gentleman from northern Spain who spoke no English. I was able to tell the station sergeant that he had come to Dartmouth to arrange regular shipments to Spain of crab and seafood to stock his wholesale warehouse and supply his two fish and seafood restaurants. The Dartmouth station sergeant sent the Spaniard to the Dartmouth fisheries cooperative, from where he telephoned asking for help again. My huge Collins dictionary enabled me to tell them that he wanted to buy several types of crab which I had never heard of; I simply remember that one of them was spider crabs!

The following day, my Spanish friend rang me again needing help… from Aberdeen! In subsequent years, on my commute between Totnes and Dartmouth, I would often see his large refrigerated lorry making its way to the ferry at Plymouth. I learnt soon afterwards that Dartmouth was at the time the premier crab-fishing port of Europe, but I suspect that most local fishing is now centred on Brixham. Police in Plymouth also called upon me to interpret for the skippers of Spanish fishing boats which had contravened fishery regulations. The fact is that fishery industry in the UK and Spain (and other EU countries) has always been linked; one could describe this international scenario as being a veritable fish-stew.

Brixham’s Fishing Heritage

The fishing industry in Brixham dates back to the 14th century. By the 18th century high value fish from Brixham such as turbot, sole and plaice were sold in markets as far afield as Exeter, Bath and London.

The arrival of the railway enabled Brixham fish, packed in ice, to reach Billingsgate Fish Market in eight hours, helping to drive the expansion of the local fishing industry. Brixham was one of the birthplaces of trawling; local fishermen travel to far-off fishing grounds, as well as fishing in local waters. By the 19th century Brixham was generally regarded as the largest fishery in England.

Trawlers using the port of Brixham land over 40 different species of fish and seafood, including cuttlefish, lemon and Dover sole, squid, monkfish, turbot, scallops, hake, bass, pollock and plaice. Now Brixham is England’s largest fish market by value of fish sold: in 2017 it was in excess of £40m. According to the Brixham Fish Market website, “this is thanks to Brixham’s reputation for top quality fish, coupled with the availability of fast transport links to Europe, opening up new markets and increased demand”. Indeed, over 70% of the catch landed at Brixham Fish Market is now exported to countries including the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy. A local fish wholesaler says: “Brixham is the best place for buying fish: the best quality fish is sourced directly from local boats and local fishermen, and this gives our clients a true sea-to-plate experience.” Further afield, your ‘sopa de pescado’ or ‘bouillabaisse’ is quite likely to contain ingredients from Brixham!

Jack Sprat and the spider crab

So, where are we now? As we know now, UK fishermen are less than content with their part of the Brexit trade deal; hardly a welcome Christmas present. Their problems merit another article written by someone with more expertise than a mere fish consumer like me. The very day before the deal was announced on 24 December, Jack Sprat’s van drew up outside our house as usual just after 9am. Once he had produced the portions of fish we required, beautifully filleted as ever in the back of his van, I took the opportunity to ask him how things were back in Brixham, in view of the then impending decision on the Brexit deal. Our always affable fishmonger’s face darkened somewhat. “Very mixed”, he replied emphatically.

Whilst it might be the case that local fishermen could in future gain exclusive access to their fishing grounds and so on, there was no denying that – deal or no deal – this would be compromised by the introduction of barriers to their ability to export their catch to Europe. Hence the complex chart on Brixham Fish Market’s website explaining “new steps and processes to export wild-caught marine fishery products to the EU after Brexit”. The point is that after 47 years of the international fishing industry being like a fish stew, you just can’t easily remove one ingredient and expect it to be what you want; the stew will still be a fish stew, just missing one ingredient. However the ingredient removed will be a formless mess and will always retain the effect of those years immersed in the fish stew.

When asked about the export trade in Brixham, among the species Jack named which are hardly consumed in the UK, if at all, and which Brixham relies on exporting, were: whelks, scallops, octopus, cuttlefish, velvet swimming crabs (!) and – yes, you’ve guessed it – spider crabs!

Where the truth matters

So, now that the truth about the post-Brexit trade agreement is out, where does all this leave the fishing industry? John Ashworth writes in ‘The Conservative Woman’ (subtitle: ‘where the truth matters’!):

“I suppose that during the Christmas period, with the concerns of Covid-19 hanging over us, to hear that Brexit is done and dusted, that we are free of the EU and will shortly be a sovereign independent coastal state, has brought cheer.”

However, he reports that, having gone through the fisheries section of the trade agreement, he quickly realised that he was reading “the most humiliating document ever, with very little about sovereignty, but much about a merger, where the leading player is the EU”. He refers to the French Europe Minister Clement Beaune, who said when interviewed by Andrew Marr:

“Fisheries are important to both of us, but let us respect both interests. Let us find a solution. Look at the big picture: if there is no deal there is no access to the EU market for the UK. Leaving the EU is about sovereignty, but for a trade agreement and beyond you have to combine two sovereignties, you have to respect both. If you want access to a common market you have to respect the rules of this market both ways.”

Hoping that he would wake up from a bad dream and find that the contents are not true, Ashworth concludes that there is very little gain for the UK fishing industry in some places, in others none.

“One could even say we would be better off staying in.”