Fishing industry reeling from coronavirus restaurant shutdown

The price of fish has plummeted since Boris Johnson announced the closure of pubs and restaurants

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Borough Market and customers wearing masks
Fish markets have been closed as part of the shutdown Credit: Bloomberg/Olivia Harris

Last week whispers from Brussels that the EU may cave on the UK’s Brexit fishing demands were welcomed by many in the UK’s fishing communities. But now, even in the event that French trawlers are held at bay, the British fishing industry faces a graver threat.

With restaurants and pubs forced to close their doors to halt the spread of coronavirus, fish prices at markets across the south-west have slumped. Harbours all along Cornwall and Devon’s coastline are packed with moored fishing boats. “This is a dire situation for us,” says Paul Trebilcock, CEO of the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation.

The impact has been sudden. Just two weeks ago, fish sales were holding relatively well. But at the start of last week, prices and demand tumbled. “Exports went first,” explains Trebilcock, “it was big blow for shellfish catchers, whose produce goes almost exclusively to export markets in Europe and Asia.”

As the week went on, advice from government about restaurants then turned off UK demand overnight. “By midweek the shellfish market had stopped completely; the merchants just couldn’t take any at all because they couldn’t pass it on to retailers or restaurants.”

Prices for white fish were also slashed as demand plummeted. “The price for pollock went from £4 a kilo to 80 pence on Plymouth market,” says Dave Bond, a 62-year-old fisherman from Looe, Cornwall, “from a fishermen’s point of view, it’s a disaster.”

Accustomed to adverse conditions  

Adversity is not new to the UK fishing industry. “We’ve had a tough time for several years now, mostly because of fishing quotas” says Joe Clive, who owns Newlyn Fish Company, “but we’ve been feeling more optimistic about the future because of Brexit.”

EU documents leaked a few weeks ago added to this optimism. These indicated that the draft free trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and the UK would soften the language regarding EU access to British fishing water, from “upholding” the status quo to “respecting” it.

 “After last week, some of the expectations that had been built up [by Brexit] seemed more likely,” says Trebilcock.

Brexit had been giving the fishing industry plenty to smile about Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Yet coronavirus means that some fishing businesses might not survive to see the UK’s exit from the EU. The virus’s timing is particularly bad, coming at the end of a difficult winter. “A lot of boats were struggling any way,” says Bond, “the weather was just starting to settle down but now we’ve got this to deal this”.

According to Trebilcock, for small inshore fleets in particular the bad winter means that “there isn’t the resilience, there isn’t money in the bank”.

Delivery service 

Trebilcock and others are working to get fishermen back out to sea. Seafood Cornwall, a subsidiary of the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation, has launched a Fish to Your Door service to help keep the fishing industry going. Creating a register of would-be fish buyers and merchants, the service is delivering fresh fish and shellfish directly to customers’ doors.

“We started speaking to the smaller local merchants and their market has gone as well so they’ve got fleets of vans which were just weren’t being used,” Trebilcock explains, “this is where the Fish to Your Door service came about.”

Instead of heading to restaurants in London or elsewhere, merchants’ and wholesalers’ vans are to be redeployed to local deliveries. “The restaurant trade, which is my main customer base, is done,” says George Cleave, a wholesaler based in Port Isaac, Cornwall, who has signed up to the Fish to Your Door service, “now we all need to adapt.”

Home delivery is proving particularly popular with customers. “The response has been really big,” says Trebilcock. Around a thousand people have asked to sign up so far, half of whom have already registered for deliveries.

The Newlyn Fish Company, which has been doing home deliveries since the company launched in 1983, has also seen a sudden uptake of interest. “I’ve had delivery requests from people whose doors I’ve been going past for years without them noticing”, says owner, Joe Clive.

An online marketplace for fishermen will also launch this week. “Through this, fishermen will be able to the sell their landings direct to home consumers across the country,” says Ben King, manager of Pesky Fish, the start-up behind the idea.

Accentuating the positive

There are hopes that, through such innovations, coronavirus might offer a silver lining for the fishing industry. “The one thing this country lacks in is appreciation of fish. In Italy and France and Spain, they live and breathe seafood,” says fisherman Dave Bond, “I hope this will go some way towards re-educating the British public about the goodness of fish.”

The crisis has revealed “a gap in people’s knowledge about where to get fish from,” adds Trebilcock. “Supermarkets aren’t the only supplier of fish and never have been, but they’re obviously convenient. Hopefully this might re-engage British people with their local suppliers.”

Such initiatives may not be enough. The fishing industry is still waiting to hear what support the Government will offer. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is holding telecom meetings with the sector to decide what actions to take, according to a statement issued in response to questions from The Telegraph.

For shellfish catchers and merchants reliant on export, trade help may come too late. “We’ve been dealing with [coronavirus] since it hit China in January,” says Jamie Macmillan, managing director of Lochfyne Sea Farms, a Scottish shellfish wholesaler which exports to east Asian as well as UK and European markets. With Asian markets dried up and UK sales at rock bottom, “we had to make a decision to shut down,” he explains, “every day single days it gets worse and worse.”