As COVID-19 swept around the globe and vast swathes of Europe and Asia went into lockdown, fishermen across the country have been left without a market. A staggering 80% of UK fish landings are exported, mostly to these regions. Add to that the closure of restaurants across the UK and the fishing industry has virtually collapsed overnight, with prices in some places plummeting by 85%. Inshore fishermen, who are self-employed and depend on these routes to market, are now fighting for survival.

Cornwall, home to the country’s largest fleet of small boats, is particularly vulnerable. Alongside tourism, small communities in Cornwall are heavily dependent on the fishing industry, which, after a terrible winter, is already struggling. Fishermen with smaller day boats under 10 metres rely on selling their fresh fish and shellfish to restaurants – most of which are currently shut – at home and in Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Denmark and South Korea. Conversely, most of the fish we do consume here in the UK is imported, but as people become quarantined due to illness, less of it is reaching our shores and less of what does reach us is being processed.

This leaves the UK in an unprecedented situation where, while supermarket shelves are stripped bare and there are tales of people going hungry, there is quite literally, still plenty of fish in the sea. Higher capacity boats like those that fish out of north-east Scotland are tied up, reluctant to use their quota with no guaranteed market, while smaller boats risk struggling to sell what they do catch with their outlets closing down. Like much of the food industry, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the fragility of the highly complex supply chains we count on to get our food. ‘The UK seafood industry is highly geared up for the export market, where 80% of our fish goes,’ explains Mike Warner, a seafood consultant and journalist, who has been working to promote the British inshore fishing industry since 2015. ‘We don’t have the infrastructure to get the fish from the coast into the supermarkets. With fewer imports coming in, most supermarkets’ only choice is to close fresh fish counters and rely on the remaining frozen stocks they do have.’

Sennen, Cornwall

Despite these supply issues, demand for fish appears to be high, and with imports grinding to a halt there is a unique opportunity for the smaller boats to fill that gap. ‘Almost by default, the onus has fallen to the small-scale fishermen that operate from little ports and coves and harbours all around the UK,’ Mike explains, ‘because they are still very much wanting to maintain a livelihood.’ Persuading the British public, whose seafood tastes have been traditionally conservative, to eat scallops, crab, lobster, megrin and even whelk – all plentiful on British shores – may be a harder sell. Yet, with the help of local fishermen, there are signs that something might be shifting.

James Roberts, like many independent fishermen across the UK, has started selling his fish directly to local consumers, with astonishing success. Owner of the Bonnie Grace boat, he normally sells his fish in Newlyn fish market. Whilst the market is still open, fish prices are so low it’s not worth James trying to compete with what the larger boats can offer. ‘When this all kicked off I had no idea if anyone was going to buy my fish on Monday so I went on Facebook and started advertising,’ he explains. The response has been astounding, with demand often outsourcing supply. ‘It’s really taken off,’ says James. ‘The country was slowly getting used to the idea of local produce, but now they’re all indoors, they are trying new things and want to support us.’

James Robert

James Roberts

To be more economical, James only sells whole fish, so the consumer gets a better price than buying from a fishmongers or supermarket and they can learn more about the fish. ‘Some people don’t have a clue how to handle a fish,’ he says, which might suggest that many people are used to buying fish pieces from the supermarket. ‘I’ve put some videos on my Facebook page and I’ve had really good feedback. Families are handling the fish together and having a laugh.’

For some fisherman, social media and the logistics of selling directly to the public may prove too complicated, meaning they will accept the Government support offered to the self-employed. For younger fishermen like James, it could be the opening of a new door. ‘There might be a silver lining in all this,’ he says. ‘We’re really chuffed with how it’s going and if we carry on doing well, we might turn it into a family business, although I might need some help with the logistics!’

Ben George

Further down the coast in Sennen, Ben George is doing something similar with his lobster, and while it is proving harder work, there are some perks. ‘It’s selling local food to local people,’ Ben says, ‘we’ve lost that over the last 30 years. I’ve had people say they would rather buy from me than the supermarket – they know where it’s coming from and they like the story. I almost dread my buyer ringing me. It is much easier selling to him but there are now people relying on the fresh fish I’m delivering.’ Alongside providing food, fishermen like Ben are also reconnecting with the community and bringing people together. ‘Locals are wanting to support us,’ he says, ‘but it’s also brought the fishermen closer – we are supporting each other rather than being in competition.’

Up and down the country, fishermen are changing the way they sell their fish with similar success. Seafood Cornwall has set up the Fish to your Door campaign, which has so far connected over 1200 customers to local fisherman. Similarly Mike, who recently set up A Passion For Seafood, is working with fishermen in Suffolk to sell their fish directly to fishmongers in London and believes this could be a turning point for Britain’s beleaguered small-scale fishing fleet. ‘There is a massive demand for our own home-grown seafood at the moment,’ he says, ‘it could be that this is the step change that is needed in the way people think and shop, to looking at what’s on their doorstep – supporting more local businesses and eating more seasonally, which will play into the hands of the smaller boats in the fishing industry.’

It is also good news for fish stocks since support for these smaller boats is critical to maintaining a sustainable supply of fish. By virtue of their size, they tend to be low impact in terms of their practices, targeting a diverse range of species, using a variety of methods including handlining and gill netting, and limited by the weather. Ruth Westcott, Coordinator of Sustainable Fish Cities at Sustain believes this is an opportunity for the British public to support more sustainable practices and try new things. ‘Please check out the Sustainable Fish Cities directory or any of the other lists that may be local to you, and buy UK-landed fish,’ she advises. ‘Remember, some fish caught around the coast of the UK is considered ‘Fish to Avoid‘ because it is severely overfished or being caught by very damaging methods, so make sure you check this list first.’ She also argues that caterers such as fish and chip shops, which are still open, could serve more unusual species such as Cornish Hake. Equally, the public sector has an important role to play in buying sustainable UK landed fish for care homes, prisons, hospitals and food parcels.

Whether this renaissance continues remains to be seen, but there is a glimmer of hope that fishermen like James and Ben might just rekindle the connection between the British public and the seafood on our shores, at the same time as promoting a resilient and local food economy that supports communities to live in a more sustainable way.

Photographs: Nathan Harrison

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