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Brixham harbour

How fish gets from boat to plate

eric’s fish-loving content director, Alex Mead, recently wrote a story on fisherman Dave Driver and his life at sea and the challenges of making a living from the ocean. But once he’s caught his fish, what happens then? This is how it goes from boat to plate…

The Girl Debra is one of more than 120 boats that lands their catch at Brixham in Devon every year, contributing to more than £30m worth of fish going through the market. It’s not only England’s biggest fishing port, but sorting through more than 40 different species, it’s also one of the most diverse in the world.

The catch

From the moment skipper Dave Driver moors his boat on the quay of Brixham, the BTA (Brixham Trawler Agents) operation takes over. “The boats come in and we basically take it from there,” explains Barry Young, managing director of BTA, the organisation that runs Brixham Fish Market. “We land the fish, grade it [for size and quality], then sell it on the market. If we sell the catch for £20,000 in the morning, we take out any fuel, ice or expenses, give 60% to the owner, and the rest is distributed as per the skipper’s instructions to the crew. It’s in their bank by 3pm the same day.”

Mackerel catch

While Brixham is home to 20 beam trawlers (20-30 metres), 30 day boats (eight to 16 metres) and around 20 rod-and-line boats, such is the market’s reputation, fishermen will bring their catch from the far reaches of the south coast to get the best prices. Several times a week, lorries will also head up as far as Portsmouth to bring fish back from other smaller ports.

On an average day, around 60 buyers will attend Brixham’s fish auction. The merchants will arrive at 5am to make the most of the hour’s viewing access to the fish – laid out in boxes bearing the trawler’s name – before bidding begins with a bell sounding at 6am. “We’ve got two groups bidding at the same time, one is for the wholesalers and exporters who sell to the top-end London restaurants, the supermarkets, and around the world in Europe and Asia. The other is for the ‘man with a van’, smaller buyers such as fishmongers and local restaurants.”

Crab catch

It’s the former group that will be bidding for the ‘crown jewels’ of the English Channel: Dover sole, plaice and monkfish, a trio of sea gems that together make up a good chunk of Brixham’s income. Bigger than all three put together, in terms of value, is cuttlefish. “We had our best day ever recently, and took about £700,000 in one morning – and £400,000 of that was cuttlefish, that’s about 100 tonne’s worth.”

Buyers at fish market

While every buyer has to be bonded and approved before turning to the market, it’s not just paperwork that you have to overcome to ensure you get the best deal. “You have to have a bit of local knowledge,” explains Adam Hendriksen, one of the Brixham regulars. “For instance, if you know by a boat’s name that it’s a scalloper, you know that any fish it catches is by accident – it’s bycatch – so the quality might not be as good.”

Knowing your boats is one thing, but the other challenge is the sheer diversity of what’s being landed. “We’re so lucky to have such varied species in the English Channel,” says Young. “We have at least 40 different species and nowhere in the world has that kind of variety. We also have a lot of seasonal fish which means that we can make a living 12 months of the year – there aren’t many places that can say that.”

Once the bidding is over, with trucks and vans waiting on the doorstep of the market, the fish – some landed only hours before – is loaded up and sent, almost literally in some cases, to the four corners of the world. Some, however, stays local, really local. Read about four of the best local Brixham restaurants for fish here.

Brixham Fish Market organises tours throughout the year, usually starting at 6am so you can catch all of the action as it happens. There are weekly tours during August, 2018, three tours a month for September and October. To book a tour, email [email protected]

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