Before dawn, the fish market in Brixham stirs into life as the shining silver catch from local fishing boats is unloaded, sorted, graded and auctioned off to food suppliers and restaurants.
This coastal town in south Devon can trace its fishing history back as far as the 14th century and today, thanks to Brexit, is at the centre of a modern political drama.
The UK fisheries industry is one of the reasons why London and Brussels are stumbling over a trade agreement, although business in Brixham is unaffected so far. Its fish market has just enjoyed a run of million-pound weeks, where sales in the online auction of cuttlefish, scallops and more than 40 types of fish have regularly reached seven figures.
Standing in one of two chilly sale halls where seafood is inspected and sold, Kevin Dale of Brixham Trawler Agents, which manages the market says: “The other day we had 30,000 dover sole.”
Brixham has become England’s largest market by value of fish sold, and the EU is its largest customer. Over 70% of Brixham’s catch is exported to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.
However, EU boats use British fishing waters too and they want to continue doing so after 31 December. This sticking point is one of the reasons for Boris Johnson’s claim last Friday that the country would have to prepare for a no-deal scenario if Brussels did not change its general negotiating stance.
The economic size of the UK fishing industry is dwarfed by its symbolic importance. According to official data, the seafood sector, which includes fishing, aquaculture and processing, represents 0.1% of the UK economy, a contribution of £1.4bn in 2018. But for Brixham and other coastal communities around the UK it is vital.
“Brixham is a special place,” says Josh Perkes, owner of Brixham Seafish, who is overseeing a team of rubber-booted workers preparing boxes of hake and gurnards bought at that morning’s market and destined for city restaurants. Perkes is the sixth generation of his family to make a living from the bountiful waters off Brixham, and says fishing is “everything” to the town. “There are two trades here: fishing and tourism.”
For this coastal community – and a scattering of others around UK shores, from Peterhead on Scotland’s north-east coast to Newlyn on Cornwall’s southern tip – fishing is a cornerstone.
The industry is undeniably shrinking, however. It employed around 8,000 people in June 2020, not counting the self-employed, which is less than half the number recorded in June 1978, five years after Britain joined the EU.
And many in the fishing industry blame EU membership for this decline, believing Britain got a bad deal when it entered the bloc in the 1970s. Fishing quotas, the common fisheries policy (CFP) and access to British waters for foreign boats have long been contentious.
Securing more control of the fish in British and shared waters was a key promise of the 2016 Brexit campaign. EU-based fleets catch up to eight times as many fish in UK waters as British fishermen do in EU waters, according to UK government data.