Jun 25 2004

New Fish Quay, Brixham

Beamers at dawn

It is 3.50 a.m. and the first birds are just beginning to sing. I climb out of bed, rub my eyes, quieten the startled dog and jump into the clothes I have been instructed to wear: jeans, tea shirt, sweater, white coat, baseball hat and Wellington boots. A quick cup of coffee while I load films into three cameras, I’m not taking any chances, then into the car and off to the Old Telephone Exchange. Mark Lobb is already there. It’s 4.45. If we leave now we will be in good time for the fish quay at Brixham. Too early, though, for the ferry over the river, so we must take the long way round.

Mark selling in Dartmouth

I have known Mark for over twenty years and worked with him for some time several years ago on a Government youth employment project. Even so it was with some trepidation that I asked him if I could visit the fish quay with him. It is not open to the public and is made up of a close knit group of fish traders unused to new faces, particularly a woman! “We all grew up together, they’ll look at you and wonder if you’re some sort of Government official! You stay near me.” I will, I thought!

The early morning air was sharp despite the heat of recent days. Dawn was breaking as we parked on the quay and the fishing boats, all shapes and sizes, were emerging from the night shadows. I climbed from the van, gathered up my cameras, two very small but one very large, took a deep breath, put my shoulders back and prepared myself. “Sorry in advance for the language.” But there was little to worry about!

Inside the market

We walked into huge hall where men in the required “uniform” milled around crates of fish. At first I was surprised at the inactivity. A slow drift round each catch. Crates were peered at, fish was picked up, smelt, thrown back, crates kicked. In general, I soon realised, the idea was to look as disinterested as possible.


Mark explained that the boats had come in the previous evening and all night a team had sorted gutted, cleaned and crated the fish. Octopus are kept separately so the ink doesn‘t contaminate the rest of the catch. Scallops have their place too, “ a special market.” The rest of the catch from each boat is sorted and crated by the boat’s name. I was amazed at how the quantities varied, masses of crates from some boats and just a few from others. The Beamers had come in that night, the boats that go to sea for up to five days at a time. But the high tides and the exceptionally hot weather meant the catches were low even for the best of them. There would be no more Beamers in till the end of the week so the next few days would rely on the short haul boats that go out for the night only. How sparse it all looked.

I have read so much about the troubles of the fishing industry and here it was before my eyes. Too many traders trying to buy too little fish. No wonder they try to look casual, to keep the price down. And then there’s “that guy over there.” Mark points him out. He’s wearing two hats, both boat owner and fish trader. It’s in his interest to keep the prices up….gradually I begin to see more and more. And the auction begins.

Bidding begins

As I watch the twitch here, the wave of a hand there, the eyebrow raised, the price moving up, it is incredibly hard to see who is bidding for what. All part of the skill, of course. These old hands have it down to a fine art.

My mind begins to drift back over all I have read about the history of fish and fishing. The Romans are said to have had amazing food markets. They knew how to make ice so could keep food fresh. Tanker ships brought the fish to shore. Huge fishponds were fed by the aqueducts that bought water to the cities. Carts carrying water tanks took the live fish to market. I have seen the same in modern Japan. A lorry driving through Tokyo on its way to deliver fresh fish to restaurants, the whole vehicle one huge tank with fish swimming round for all to see.

In the Middle Ages the Pope made eating fish on Fridays compulsory. Lent and Saints days too. Fish was supposed to cool the blood unlike red meat. Trade grew up between north and south. Fish was dried in Scandinavia with salt from North Germany. Salt fish came to be the staple food stuff of the poor across Europe. Feudal Lords gave fishing rights on their lakes and ponds for fresh fish as privileges to the rich and powerful.

Red Gurnard

Louis XV offered 9000 francs to anyone who could find a way to bring fresh Sea Bream to Paris and a little later in 1775 Louis XVI first reduced, then abolished certain taxes to enable the poor to eat salt fish in Lent. Unfortunately no one remembered this when they cut off his head in 1789!

Our own fishing tradition goes way back too. It wasn‘t until the 1880’s that fishing became industrialised. Some two hundred years earlier Henry VIII had forbidden the purchase of cod from foreigners in an effort to encourage the English to fish the abundance in Newfoundland. Settlers went there with the fisherman, shipwrights and merchants whose descendants are there to the present day……


Even whilst in this reverie my camera is clicking. I don’t want to miss a thing. “Who are you?”, “Would you like a coffee?”, “ Who are you with?” Mark was right. Who on earth is this woman in our midst? I just smile and say I‘m with him over there, and I’m going to write an article about fish. Some move on and others talk about the difficulties facing the industry now. They complain about the mass of regulations that traders and fisherman wrestle with. They talk of the European Fisheries Policy, fishing quotas, off shore limits, boats called “rule Beaters“, satellite communication, how it was in the old days.

Then suddenly Mark is beside me saying “Quick, take a picture of that!” I’m too late. A trader is standing on a crate and there right behind him is “Environmental Health” in nylon trilby and mauve hairnet. Fisherman and merchants are suffering from the same well intentioned, frustrating bureaucracy as the farmers. Many regulations are sensible and helpful, some are not. Unfortunately the latter often eclipse the former and tempers fray.

The modern netter Sophie Dawn outside a traditional inshore trawler.
“Rule beater” Nirvana behind.

Gradually all the crates are sold, each trader gathering his together and marking them with his own ticket. In come the fork lift trucks to load the lorries and vans. I jump out of their frenzied path. Mark goes to load ice on the quay from the huge ice maker. The boats fill their holds with ice from here before they go to sea. There are the Beamers which go to sea for up to five days. There are the old fashioned netters and inshore trawlers that go to sea for short spells, and then there are the “Rule Beaters”, big powerful boats “cut down” in order to make them legal to fish within the inshore limit.

Mark buys Lobsters

Eventually ice and fish are in our van and its time for a wonderful and welcome breakfast at the Mission to Seaman. This is a particular thrill for me, not just because I’m very hungry by now, but because I’ve heard so much of this splendid organisation from both Naval grandfather and husband. So many have been given food and shelter by these great people over the centuries but, as Mark reminds me, they must be on the quay between the water and the pub…..!

The rest of the world is just beginning to move into a new day. We return to the van and set off to collect crab meat from the “crab factory” in another part of Brixham, then back to the Old Telephone Exchange. On the way we pass Darren already out on a delivery round for Mark. We check he has all he needs and top up with some of today’s catch. Once back at the depot the fish is unloaded and iced. It goes into the chill room and the cutting and filleting begins. Now it’s ready for the next delivery van or the market. And the whole process starts all over again. I leave feeling awed and privileged to have been allowed such an insight into a world I think we all maybe take for granted.

Scallops – SOLD

There is a very fine balance between over and under fishing. Both take their toll on the fish stocks. It seems like common sense not to catch immature fish or take the breeding stock from the sea but sadly that common sense is often lost due to competition and a fight for survival. The waste is terrible too. It is said that one third of the catch is thrown back for one reason or another. That is some forty million tons a year: fish, dolphins and sea birds destroyed. Add to that the changes in sea temperature. The warming process has accelerated dramatically since the 1960s bringing different varieties of fish to our waters. Off Plymouth the sea temperature is ½ a degree warmer than it was 100 years ago and research shows the fish species are changing and fish are generally getting smaller. Global warming and modern fishing policy is having a profound effect on marine life and, if we’re not careful, the world will soon be deprived of one of its greatest sources of protein. We must remember that fish is the worlds last great wild food resource.


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