The lorries are queuing up along the quayside, including a juggernaut bound for Germany. There’s still an hour to go before sunrise but a lot of this seafood will be on its way before dawn.
The weather is on the turn, with a Force Nine gale kicking off in the Channel. It will keep the smaller boats in port for a couple of days but not the larger ones.
‘That is of absolutely no concern to me,’ chuckles Mark Ellis, skipper of the 115ft (35m) beam trawler Georgina of Ladram.
Having just landed £40,000 of Dover sole, turbot, gurnard, crab and much else, he and his crew of five are in the middle of what they call a ‘turn and burn’.
They want to drop their latest catch at the fish market as fast as possible and get straight back out into a raging sea for another four-day shift.
‘People said Brexit would kill off the British fishing industry, especially after Covid came along,’ says Barry Young, fisherman-turned-managing director of Brixham Trawler Agents. ‘In fact, we’re seeing the opposite. Our problem is we haven’t got enough space to handle all we’ve got coming in and we want to handle even more’
The fish are there, the customers are waiting and they are not going to let 30ft waves and 50mph winds keep them from another bumper haul.
Business is not just brisk here in Brixham. It is positively booming, to the extent that this grand old Devon fishing harbour has just had its best year ever.
This is a town that is cheerfully raising two fingers to shroud-waving Remainers peddling the post-Brexit, post-Covid apocalypse narrative that we are heading for the economic abyss.
What’s more, Brixham depends on an industry which, more than any other, should have been crippled by the double whammy of leaving the EU and the coronavirus — at least, that is, if you listen to gloomsters on the Opposition benches.
And yet this port has just clocked up the highest sales in its history. For, in 2021, Brixham sold £43.6 million of fish.
No one talks of furlough. Ask these grafters about ‘working from home’ and they burst out laughing. The only government hand-outs they want round here are some ‘levelling up’ funding to build new storage space and more lorry parking.
‘People said Brexit would kill off the British fishing industry, especially after Covid came along,’ says Barry Young, fisherman-turned-managing director of Brixham Trawler Agents.
What’s more, Brixham depends on an industry which, more than any other, should have been crippled by the double whammy of leaving the EU and the coronavirus — at least, that is, if you listen to gloomsters on the Opposition benches
‘In fact, we’re seeing the opposite. Our problem is we haven’t got enough space to handle all we’ve got coming in and we want to handle even more.’
He is working with the local council on a £15 million application to enlarge the quayside by reclaiming a chunk of land next to Brixham’s northern breakwater.
Mr Young and his staff of 57 run the Brixham Fish Market which was enjoying a brisk trade at 6am yesterday when I turned up for the start of the daily sale.
The first thing I notice is the absence of a fishy smell.
‘That’s because it’s all fresh and fresh fish doesn’t smell,’ explains Neil Watson, 54, ex-skipper and lifeboat crewman who did 20 years at sea before switching to running operations inside this market.
Crates of ice-covered turbot, skate, monkfish, red mullet and gurnard (to name but a few) are up for grabs this morning, along with some hefty crabs, their giant claws still nipping thin air.
One or two buyers are wandering around with laptops, logging what looks good. Most will be bidding remotely through a new online system which Brixham has pioneered in the last couple of years. One man has just logged in from Belgium to buy 20 tons of cuttlefish.
Not a single fish will be left over by mid-morning, by which time finance director Adam Mudge tots up the day’s takings: £302,000. It’s not bad, given that atrocious weather is keeping some smaller boats at home.
The atmosphere is remarkably jolly for six in the morning, especially since some of the staff in here have been on shift since six the previous evening, sorting and grading fish. Also noticeable is that everyone on the market floor seems to be from south Devon. It’s hard enough to find anyone from Cornwall, let alone Eastern Europe.
What is, perhaps, most surprising is that most of the fish they land here — around 60 per cent — is still heading for Europe. However much Europeans may moan about Brexit, they recognise that seafood from Britain’s South-West is the best premium fish in the world. And Europeans still eat a lot more fish than we do. It means that a town which was strongly pro-Brexit is enjoying a post-Brexit boom.
Talk about an inconvenient truth. This time last year, as Britain adjusted to post-EU trading rules, the airwaves and TV studios were full of gloating Remainers yelling ‘I told you so’ as exporters struggled to make sense of the new systems. It was particularly tough for exporters of food. And no food sector was hit harder than fishing.
First, the industry was shafted by the Government during the final Brexit negotiations. Prior to the UK leaving, Boris Johnson had made a lot of noise about reclaiming the 12-mile limit around the British coast for British fishermen. It was a ‘red line’ issue. Except it wasn’t. That promise was soon used as a bargaining chip to get a better deal on other things.
Meanwhile, British fishermen and seafood exporters were up against the box-tickers and pencil-chewers in the customs sheds of Europe. What better way to punish those pesky Britishers for their impudence?
Remember ‘Martijn’, the chuckling Dutch customs man? This time last year, he was the chap seen in TV footage who even confiscated a (Polish) trucker’s British sandwich (because it had no paperwork) — with a patronising: ‘Welcome to the Brexit, sir!’
In all the Channel ports of the EU, there were plenty of Martijns insisting that they were ‘only doing their job’ as they picked off British seafood consignments because forms were filled in the wrong-coloured ink or boxes stacked the wrong way round. In one case, a whole truck was stopped for a single box with a fish tail sticking out of the side.
Crates of ice-covered turbot, skate, monkfish, red mullet and gurnard (to name but a few) are up for grabs this morning, along with some hefty crabs, their giant claws still nipping thin air. One or two buyers are wandering around with laptops, logging what looks good
Exporters had to fill in a mountain of paperwork for a single crate of scallops and still get confronted with a ‘Non’/‘Nein’/‘Nee’ from the Martijns as soon as their truck came off the ferry. ‘Serves you right,’ crowed the Remainiacs.
‘I still have sleepless nights each time I send a load to Europe,’ says veteran Brixham seafood exporter, Ian Perkes, reeling off horror stories of thousands of pounds of good produce stuck in limbo — like one currently in France — because one official has randomly decided he doesn’t like a label on a box.
However, things are now much improved. The sort of people who think nothing of setting sail in a Force Nine to catch a turbot are not likely to be defeated by a chippy nit-picker in a hi-vis bib.
So all the various elements of the Brixham fishing industry have sharpened up their act. They have ensured that all their paperwork and processes are up to speed while their European customers loyally keep on ordering top grade fish. And the results have been phenomenal — up by over 10 per cent on pre-Covid/pre-Brexit figures. Assuming no more lockdowns, 2022 should be even better.
You sense the optimism just wandering around the harbour. I meet Martyn Youell of Waterdance — the biggest presence here with 13 of the largest of Brixham’s 100-odd boats. His company has just invested in a brand new £2.5million crabbing boat from a yard in Whitby, thus keeping a team of Yorkshire boat-builders in work.
So what is the secret to Brixham’s success? Talking to skippers and traders, it is, in part, down to looking ahead. This is the first market to devise a new online auction system which everyone calls ‘The Clock’.
Each catch comes up on screen with a price which then ticks down on a virtual clockface until a buyer jumps in. At which point they can buy as much of that catch as they like before the clock starts ticking down again.
Barry Young says it makes the whole system more transparent and means more money for the fishermen. So more and more boats from all over southern England are landing their catches at Brixham. Some small boats from Sussex even ship their fish down to Devon in a refrigerated truck for sale here because this market handles the mountain of post-Brexit paperwork, leaving skippers more time at sea.
Next door to the market, the Rockfish restaurant has this week kicked off a ‘seafood at home’ service delivering fresh-as-a-daisy fish from the Brixham quayside to any home in England and Wales the next morning. ‘If it hadn’t been for Covid, we might never have got this off the ground,’ says owner and TV chef, Mitch Tonks.
So what is the secret to Brixham’s success? Talking to skippers and traders, it is, in part, down to looking ahead. This is the first market to devise a new online auction system which everyone calls ‘The Clock’
The only problem they have, aside from a lack of space, is a shortage of recruits. Young people are simply not keen.
‘This is an industry with very good prospects but people are still put off,’ says local Tory MP for Totnes, Anthony Mangnall, who spent a few days at sea on the Georgina of Ladram last autumn. It’s hard work, he is the first to point out, but for those who like the sea, there are rich pickings.
Salaries for a skipper can be well above £100,000, a first mate can earn £50,000 and modern boats are safer and more comfortable than ever. Mr Mangnall is now lobbying the government for a £1 million grant to build a fishing industry campus at South Devon College.
For all the innovation, however, it will always be a unique industry with dearly-held traditions. Absolutely no one at all uses the new BBC-approved politically correct label of ‘fisherpeople’. ‘We’re all fishermen here, even the women,’ says Neil Watson.
And everyone has their superstitions.
For example, all the boats in Martyn Youell’s Waterdance fleet are blue — except one that is red.
‘The skipper’s wife will only let him go to sea in a red boat because she had a dream that he would drown if he wasn’t in a red boat,’ says Martyn. ‘At the end of the day, this is a people industry. You listen to the families!’
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