The great British fish swap

Billingsgate Market Billingsgate Market is the largest inland fish market in the UK. The original market traded in Lower Thames Street for 900 years, before moving to east London in 1982.
Fish The market is run by the City of London Corporation. Fifty-four licensed merchants trade 25,000 tonnes of fish each year, 40% of which is imported, and its annual turnover is currently estimated to be £200m.
Billingsgate Market Cod, haddock, plaice, sole and salmon (filleted and ready for sale) as well as shellfish, arrive overnight on lorries from as far afield as Scotland and Cornwall.
A fish at Billingsgate Market Exotic warm water fish such as parrot fish, tilapia and grouper also arrive from more distant waters, having been immediately iced, packed and flown directly to London's Heathrow airport.
A fish stall at Billingsgate Market It is still dark when, at 4am, a bell chimes to mark the official opening of the market and trading can commence.
Billingsgate Fish Market porters The only people permitted to move fish were traditional fish porters, a strongly unionised workforce who were employed by the merchants under by-laws dating from 1876.
A Billingsgate fish market porter However, the City of London Corporation repealed the by-laws resulting in most of the 93 fish porters being made redundant in April of this year. (Approx 35 of the 93 porters have now been rehired by the traders).
A woman choosing fish to buy at Billingsgate Market The buyers are mainly fishmongers, hoteliers and restaurateurs but a healthy percentage is made up of private individuals buying for their families.
Billingsgate Fish Market Most of the fish is chilled, rather than frozen. Few fish and chip shops buy from Billingsgate as most buy wild-caught frozen-at-sea fish from suppliers in Iceland and Norway.
Craig Duke, fish trader at Billingsgate Market The emphasis is on freshness but some species can be "too fresh". Turbot and Dover sole suffer from a form of rigor mortis and need to "settle down" before they are ready to eat.
Boxes of fish Fish merchant Alan Cook says: "A lot of people don't realise that the fishing depends on weather and tides. We are not looking in a field for it. It's trial and error."
Billingsgate Fish Market By 7.30am most of the fish has already been sold and many of the buyers have left. (Pictures by Emma Lynch)

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?

You 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.

But while taste in fish remains much the same, the industry that gathers it has constantly changed. The latest change comes as the EU moves to ban the practice of throwing dead fish back into the sea.

UK's deep-sea fishing fleet

Fish on the dock at Grimsby in its heyday
  • In 1951, there were 36,882 fishermen regularly employed and 5,039 occasionally employed.
  • Grimsby was the largest fishing port in the world, with 600 boats calling it home
  • There are now an estimated 12,000 fishermen, working on nearly 7,000 UK vessels
  • Newlyn, in Cornwall, has the largest number of fishing vessels in the UK (619) but many of these boats are small
  • Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Shetland have the largest capacity by gross tonnage

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.

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

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.

Within a decade of the end of the Cod Wars Grimsby's distant water fleet had disappeared.

Nick Triplow, author of Distant Water: Stories From Grimsby's Fishing Fleet, said many of the fishermen struggled to adapt to life ashore: "The closest comparison is with a military combat zone, where you live with the adrenaline and learn to handle it. That is what it was like for them at sea with heavy machinery, slippery decks and big waves."

Many former fishermen developed drink problems or saw their marriages break up.

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.

Now, with UK fleets unable to access the best spots for cod and haddock, most of it is imported from Iceland, Denmark or Norway.

"Ironically Iceland has built up its fishing industry on the back of exports to Britain," says Dr Ian Napier, a senior policy adviser at the NAFC Marine Centre in the Shetland Isles.

The quota system

  • Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) introduced in 1970s
  • Limits fishermen's days at sea
  • Quotas meant fishermen threw dead fish back into sea
  • Environmental groups have long campaigned against this
  • Practice is now likely to end

Scotland retains a "vibrant, active fishing industry" based in Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Shetland, with much of the catch travelling overnight by lorry for sale at London's Billingsgate market.

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.

Many of the customers are from ethnic minorities where fish is an important part of their culture.

Horace Francis, who is of Jamaican origin, told the BBC: "I come down once a twice a month to buy stuff for the family. The kids like fish. It's mainly snapper and bream.

Map of key ports

"If we're cooking snapper it will be steamed or in a brown stew with vegetables, lots of fish seasoning, Caribbean-style, with a kick to it."

But a lot of fish caught by British fishermen bypasses Billingsgate and is exported to France, Spain, Italy, Russia and Japan. Nigeria is a major market for dried fish.

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.

But Britons are fiercely loyal to cod - 800,000 tonnes are caught globally every year, and about a quarter of that is consumed in the UK.

"There are lots of different species that consumers could be eating, but we are very conservative in this country and we are [governed] by consumer patterns," says Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

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

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."

Jubilee Spirit at Grimsby The Jubilee Spirit preparing to sail from Grimsby. It was away for 10 days hunting flatfish.

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.

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.

"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.

"It takes 24 hours to get to the coast of Norway. We are looking for flatfish, maybe 300 or 400 boxes of sole or plaice," he said as he prepared to set off on a 10-day trip.

The plaice may end up in one of Britain's 8,500 fish and chip shops.

According to the Office for National Statistics the average price of a fish-and-chip supper rose from £2.42 to £4.74 between 1996 and 2011. But the rise is thought to be largely due to fuel costs.

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."

Table showing imports and exports of fish

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I live in Ullapool in the Highlands, described above as a key port. The thing is its really difficult to buy locally landed fish or shellfish here which is crazy.
    At times several lorries from the continent are lined up on the pier all waiting to be loaded and then the fish is whisked away.
    Have to agree with others about cod, many people are missing out by not even trying other types of fish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Supermarkets not doing enough? Strange. My local supermarkets have a pretty decent range of fish. Can always get hold of sea bass, mackerel, various trout, Tilapia, ray wings.

    Or is this a case of frozen battered fish that can be put in the oven?

    I'd blame the lazy british attitude to cooking for the lack of variety in their intake of fish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I think that a distinction should be made between types of fish and the typical methods of serving it. Deep fry anything in batter and you will struggle to differentiate between the taste of the fish and the oil. Grill or pan fry fish and then that is when the flavours of some of the lesser used varieties are best experienced. Deep fried cod or delicious bbq'd mackerel - only one winner in my book

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I recently asked in a local supermarket fish counter (the only local place to buy fresh fish) if they had any Grey Mullet, the disinterested 'fish monger' had never heard of it. As a child I recall our town fish monger was forever offering us new things, he knew his stuff and he lived to sell fish.

    We are an Island nation surrounded by lots of yummy fish, yet are addicted to junk food.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I've really never understood the obsession with Cod when there is so much great fish out there. I'm not saying I don't like it, but I'd actively choose another fish just because of the prevalence of Cod and, as George has said, it's association with people who wont stray away from what they know. I adore good food, and embrace the variety of things you can do with all the different fish out there


Comments 5 of 7



  • Mukesh SinghNo remorse

    Delhi bus rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

  • Aimen DeanI spied

    The founder member of al-Qaeda who worked for MI6

  • Before and after shotsPerfect body

    Just how reliable are 'before and after' photos?

  • Lotus 97T driven by Elio de AngelisBeen and Gone

    A champion F1 designer and other notable losses

  • A poster of Boris Nemtsov at a rally in St Petersburg, Russia, 1 MarchWho killed Nemtsov?

    Theories abound over murder that shocked Moscow

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.