Good Friday means fish! We're on Grimsby's market for the busiest week of the year

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 28 Mar 2018

EASTER has coincided with a bumper week for Grimsby Fish Market, with volumes high and prices top heavy too.  Rising with the sun, editor David Laister took in show day ahead of tucking in to a Good Friday tradition.

The morning bustle and banter of the daily fish auction has changed little in the decades we’ve reported on the 7am happenings ‘down dock’.

Flocks of white coated merchants, a slight jostle for position to catch the auctioneer’s eye, plenty of banter, and, despite the competitive nature of all things business nowadays, a camaraderie assembled around the grouped boxes you’d struggle to find anywhere else. 

Characters, customers, clients, the black books and the bids, as square upon square of fish is sold, then moved on from, as the fork lifts descend to start the onward journey to chip shop, restaurant or wet fish counter.

The biggest change, and some time back now – yet still the focus of national media with an axe to grind – is how the cod and haddock gets to Grimsby. 

It is a simple 180 degree change in direction for the market, but what it means runs much deeper. 

For on 'show day' 20 years ago, on the pristine market only opened in 1996, trawlers would be flying bunting, welcoming onlookers, having landed metres from where the merchants’ tickets fall on the glistening catch, once the deal – agreed in seconds – completes. Now, while the distance from arrival to auction is similar in metres, it is now from Eimskip and Samskip containers, loading bays designed to take product out by road, bringing it in from a huge container vessels berthed at Immingham, having sailed from Iceland. 

There’s still the best part of 200 metres of quayside for vessels to land, but not today. Shellfish is the choice of the local landings, with days at sea, migrating species and a diminished fleet meaning even the dozen or so trawlers still registered to the town are more likely to land in Shetland, Scotland or on the continent. 

How they got there is history now, be it Nato-pressured pacification of Iceland or Brussels spoutings - either way a tragedy - and while Brexit offers a chance of an uplift, no-one on the market is any the wiser. Likewise, no-one is expecting a transformation as ideaoligised by the likes of Michael Gove (albeit for Peterborough – he meant Peterhead) and Nigel Farage, the famously regular absentee from Brussels fisheries debates.

Has this tempered the atmosphere? Not at all. Monday saw 3,500 boxes, 2,000 yesterday and a further 1,000 today. A further 1,000 tomorrow. 

“It is up on last year, and even if you take out the impact of the Icelandic strike, and look at like-for-like business, we are up,” chief executive of operator Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises, Martyn Boyers, enthused.

“People still want to eat fish, it is a great British tradition, and no more so than on Good Friday.

"Volumes are different nowadays, but we still have the Easter tradition, and it is great for industry. It is good there is enough fish to meet demand. We've been busy. We've had our best week of the year in terms of volume delivery. Easter is a moveable feast, it is positive how it has landed, but it is not by design. We'd always like more fish at Easter and this has been a particularly good Easter." 

The eating habits are an undisputable fact. On what I hope will be a happy return from Blundell Park (clap, clap, clap, clap clap, clap FISH!), the Laister family will add to the the local chippie's bumper takings as we welcome friends over from Leeds. Underneath the batter and the little squeeze of lemon, that haddock on my plate will have passed through this market this week. Repeat for hundreds of thousands, in some form, from this town, nationwide.

“Protein, pure protein,” calls auctioneer Nelson Hunter, the Atlantic Fresh representative in Grimsby, as the last box of the hunted species is sold. Blink and you miss the process, with quick bids, escalating prices, noted down in the bible, then on again.

“It is a bit different to the show days of the past, it is just a normal day now,” Mr Hunter said. 

This coming weekend also marks the start of the 12 month countdown for the UK’s EU withdrawal deadline, fudged somewhat by transition time, but still front and centre of most minds, especially as it appears our biggest export may now become a bargaining tool.

Where are we with it? “No-one knows, it is just uncertainty,” Mr Hunter said. “Whether you’re for Brexit or remain, I don’t think anyone knows what is going to happen. We don’t know what’s going to happen with trade, with Iceland – and for the place where we all are that is the single most important element.  If we knew the answer we could build and prepare, but I don’t think anyone knows the answer.  I look at it, I follow the news, and I still don’t know what the deal is. They say it is clear and decisive, I don’t see it as that clear.”

“We, Atlantic Fresh, are committed to the market, we’ll be having a go at it, definitely.”

What am I bid? Nelson Hunter auctions boxes of fish.

It is one of the big agents bringing fish here, and has been for years, capitalising on the Icelandic route, and protected by British skippers’ decisions to sell quota or decommission vessels as times got tough. 

Tariffs are already imposed on some Icelandic imports, and while cod and haddock is not included at present, plaice has a 2.2 per cent levy and lemon soles 4.5 per cent. 

“That is someone’s bottom line,” Mr Hunter reflected, should it go across all species, adding: “I can’t imagine the UK putting a duty on Icelandic fish.”

Then there’s border control too. “Fish is perishable, and we know what a pain it is if a container boat is late. Extra delays can miss a market. People here are geared up for Monday trade, getting it out. The van lads (the mobile fishmongers leaving Grimsby for profitable home counties and many other pockets of England) can’t wait. They’ll just take frozen.”

A big if, would also be if Rotterdam received the Reykjavik vessel before Immingham too on the weekly sailing schedule. “A little decision like that would have a huge impact,” Mr Hunter said. “If that happens we wouldn’t have a Monday auction. It is so important we have fish here on a Monday. But all it could take is a university graduate who has never seen a day’s work down here, looking at a spreadsheet.”

The wrath of Westminster would no doubt be unleashed, with the likes of Mr Boyers, the FMA secretariat and cluster lead Simon Dwyer and the civic representation beating a path to Whitehall. It is undisputable though that the whole supply chain is tentatively linked by key commercial decisions by the strongest party in the various complex elements.

Happy day: Martyn Boyers at the auction.

Mr Boyers is upbeat. He’s closer than most, playing key roles with industry bodies in both ports and seafood, as well as the daily interaction at the coal (or cod) face on the market.

“In Grimsby we had the Cod Wars in the late Seventies and early Eighties, we came through changes in regulation with the Common Fisheries Policy in the Nineties, we came through all that. We had regional development agency Yorkshire Forward in the Noughties trying to push us to Humberside Airport. I don’t see Brexit changing anything. All through these negotiations, all we need to do is understand the rules then get on with it. People still want to eat their fish, and someone has to buy it, sell it, package it and distribute it, and we play a key part in that.”

So what about “taking back control” of UK waters, or is it a flotilla of false promises?

“It is unrealistic to think we will go back to the good old days but there is opportunity for an uplift and we have the capacity to increase fish landings, no problem at all,” he said. “It will be inshore stuff.” It has been seen, when Iceland’s financial crisis hit, trawlers made a beeline for Grimsby, with payment guaranteed, once representatives steered around restrictive legislation intended to counter terrorism, not seafood.  

Grimsby’s role remains clear. A total of 80 per cent of UK consumed seafood is imported, with Iceland leading the supply. 

Buying was former chairman of the FMA, Chris Sparkes, owner of Jaines Seafood.

“It is busy as Easter always is,” he said, joking with fellow merchants about the need for elastic chiller walls. “There is still that demand, plenty of fish and plenty of demand. We are flat out.” 

Selling next: The fish boxes laid out ahead of the auction, in the early hours of the morning.

He’s of a generation that has seen change, and looking out from the first floor cafe onto a millpond of a fish dock, the work being undertaken on decks was offshore wind maintenance, not trawlers.  It is here where the media who parachute in on occasion for Brexit debate, to paint stark contrast of glory days of fishing and now, and to seek out deprivation in its rawest form for the likes of Skint, forget the new industry now 10 years in the building.

For after some dire years of barely a yacht sailing out a day, we're seeing the ramping up to a summer season of maintenance on the wind farms operated from the North Quay and Royal Dock. Thirty-plus vessels in and out, hundreds on shore, it is something of a renaissance for the hidden port, often recollected only in faded, dog eared sepia.

GFDE has led the way, with the fish docks, rebranded as Port of Grimsby East, literally - and chronologically - the first port of call on the Humber. Together with ABP it has let the land for the new builds, it has built pontoons, brought in new lock gates and a giant hoist to pull work boats from the icy water. They sit behind the ghosts of the past that still remain, the Ice Factory, the Kazbah, where new life could yet be blown. Yet you won't read all this when 'former fishing town' Grimsby is brought up.  700 to 15 vessels is an almighty decline, but we're covering half a century of politics and predicaments. We need to turn a page, yet even the institutions that should, don't quite get it.

Earlier this month Grimsby Town Hall was hired out for a national Brexit fishing debate. Local industry leaders gave it short shrift, well aware of the clash of policy between catching and processing. It should have been held in Peterhead, but perhaps the buoyant back-drop didn't fit the pre-defined message. Or maybe it was outdated data.

We digress. The next generation is on the market too, with several family names represented. Carsten Christensen bought Oscar Cleve, a 92-year-old business, six years ago. The opportunity came up when he was 30, having worked for others to get a grounding. The son of fish salesman Kurt Christensen and the grandson of a deep sea fisherman, the family have seen all sides of the industry. 

As his father was making waves in offshore wind, helping the likes of Centrica, Siemens and then Dong Energy (now Orsted) settle in Grimsby, breathing new life into the marine side, he was investing in an age-old industry less than 200 yards away from the office of Windpower Support that may have been a lure for many in his position.

“I think Grimsby is still the processing hub of the UK and still attracts a lot of fish, even though it is imported from Iceland and Norway,” he said of his decision. “The opportunity came up because Nick, Oscar’s grandson, wanted to retire, and it seemed right for me to build something myself. That was six years ago and it is doing all right. 

“Prices were high today, but we still bought, we have loyal customers to serve, hotels, chip shops, restaurants.”

Many use the Oscar Cleve name on the menu, a nod to provenance and proud reputation, and the price of fish is an interesting subject alone – even if many things the world over have little to do with it.  A high price in the auction hall makes Grimsby an appealing place for fish to be sent to, but it can hit margins of those buying when it spikes, and customers’ pockets in the long run if it has to be passed on. 

It opens up the question of why we don’t want to pay the same for wild caught fish by the most dangerous profession to man as we do for a chunk of cow walked into a slaughter house.  For another day, perhaps. We are a generation that knows the price of everything and the value of very little.

Bright future: Carsten Christensen, owner of Oscar Cleve. 

Cleve’s rough share of buying is 70 per cent direct purchase and 30 per cent from the market. “I know I have regular supply, then top up well,” Mr Christensen said. “This is the week. People still want that Friday fish, we keep that tradition, it keeps me in business. People want to have fish and chips.”

There has been huge consolidation, the missing names on the billing room pigeon holes within the fish market where the respected settlement scheme operates is testament to that, but Mr Christensen believes stronger businesses have emerged. He moved off the port estate to Prince Albert Gardens four years ago, having identified a need for modern factory and more space for the five-strong team to operate in. While Murray Street, the old place, like much of the Victorian elements of the port has been razed to the ground, he’s not ruling out further growth either.

“Grimsby is now the single biggest market in England, we still have the expertise, the skilled work force is here,” he said.

“I am confident we will still attract the fish, we are a big market. Everything is sustainable now, and there are good signs for the future.”

On Good Friday itself, celebrated smoker Alfred Enderby will throw open the doors to the public. Now in the hands of the Salmon family, the previous owner, Richard Enderby, had championed the traditional methods, winning European protection - the same afforded to champagne, cheeses, Cornish pasties and Melton Mowbray pork pies. It is closing in on a remarkable centenary and offers an insight worthy of all the accolades our heritage bodies can bestow.

Charlie Salmon was on the market too, buying the vital ingredient to rack up above the smouldering timbers, full of ideas to build new business on centuries old techniques. But more of that for a later day. I return to the office in a positive mood. The bunting may not be out, but there’ll undoubtedly be a few well earned celebratory shandies sunk by the hardy hundred or so who turn out each morning come Friday.

What Show Day will look like come 2021 or 2028... who knows! Now pass the vinegar. 



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