The Great British Fish Swap

Posted by on Jun 13, 2012 | Comments Off on The Great British Fish Swap


Until the 1970s most of the fish served in the UK – largely cod and haddock – was caught by British deep-sea fishing fleets, based principally in Grimsby and Hull in north-east England, and Fleetwood on the north-west coast.

Elizabeth Stevenson’s family firm runs a fleet of boats out of Newlyn, Cornwall and exports most of her catch of turbot, monkfish, megrim and brill to France and Spain.

“If it’s landed at 3am today, it will be auctioned at 6am, packed up in special perforated paper and put on lorries by 3pm, chilled on ice,” she explains. “It will go on the ferry from Plymouth or Poole and be in Paris by tomorrow morning.”

Successive UK governments have encouraged the consumption of fish – especially oily fish like salmon, mackerel or herring – on health grounds.

The most fertile fishing grounds were in the deep, cold seas off Iceland and Greenland.

Scottish-farmed salmon and wild-caught cod, plus bream and brill from Cornwall, are among 150 varieties of fish and shellfish on sale there.

Vans arrive at the market from London’s Heathrow airport, bringing warm-water species, such as grouper, tilapia, parrot fish, red snapper and squid, in chilled containers.

But defeat in the “Cod Wars” with Iceland led to the decline of the fleet, which was banned from venturing within 200 miles of the Icelandic coast.

Despite the rise of McDonald’s, KFC and thousands of Chinese and Indian takeaway restaurants, 250 million fish-and-chip suppers are still sold in the UK every year.

Most of the fish caught by British fishermen ends up on foreign tables, while those visiting British chip shops end up eating cod or haddock from many hundreds of miles away. Why?


Grimsby imports Icelandic cod, which arrives in chilled containers from nearby Immingham docks.

Map of key ports

Atlantic Fresh Limited supplies up to 20,000 tonnes of Icelandic fish a year, and the company’s managing director, Orn Jonsson, says: “Iceland and Humberside have been doing business for over 100 years and there is a lot of Icelandic investment in the seafood cluster.”

Earlier this year the Morrisons supermarket chain announced plans to create 200 jobs in the area by creating its own seafood processing factory.

Grimsby may be Britain’s fish-processing capital, but nowadays only a handful of trawlers call it home and all are fettered by the Common Fisheries Policy.

It is an expensive business to run a trawler and skippers often have to go long distances to fish.

The Grimsby area is responsible for processing 80% of the UK’s seafood and is home to a cluster of firms such as Seachill, Coldwater and Sealord, which have exclusive deals to supply fish products to Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose respectively.


It’s still value for money, argues Gregg Howard, president of the National Federation of Fish Friers. “If you go into an Indian takeaway with £5 you wouldn’t get much, but that £5 will buy you wild-caught frozen-at-sea cod, and chips.”

“You have to make every day count, so you have to be ‘on the fish’ as soon as possible,” says Ross Crookes, skipper of the Jubilee Spirit, standing on the dockside at Grimsby.

ou could not hope to find a more traditional fish-and-chip restaurant in Britain than Steel’s Corner House in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire.

“The trick is not to change anything,” says co-owner Ian Stead. “The decor is old-fashioned but people love it. A woman from America came in one day and said, ‘I came as a seven-year-old child and it hasn’t changed at all’.”

Opened in 1946, Steel’s has been serving haddock from the fish market in nearby Grimsby ever since.



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