Brilliant Brixham

Brixham is a gem of a fishing community and a buzzing seaside town too, especially during the Fishstock festival when just about everyone joins in. Mike Warner does too.

I first visited Brixham with my parents in the late 1970s. I remember a bleak and windswept Easter, fruitless fishing expeditions to the breakwater and a slate grey sea.

Roll the clock forward and this year I’ve returned not once, but twice in short order. The town first put the hook in me (and set it deep) back in June with its Trawler Race, but has now gaffed me flapping over the gunwales with my second enlightening trip, last weekend, to the hugely popular Fishstock seafood and music festival.

Brixham today is a gem of a fishing community and a buzzing seaside town to boot. And two market tours with Barry Youngs – MD of Brixham Trawler Agents, the firm that runs the auction – have really brought home how this port is leading the way in terms of innovation, investment and opportunity. Brixham market sells some 7,000 tonnes of fish a year, turning over around £28m, making it the biggest in England and the second biggest in the UK after mighty Peterhead in Scotland. More than 40 different species of fish and shellfish are landed here by the local fleet of 20-plus beam trawlers and scallopers, and some 30 days boats: these range from potters and hand-liners to smaller trawlers and fast rod-and-line boats, which sprint in and out of Torbay with catches of magnificent bass.

With its origins in the 16th century, Brixham has successfully adapted to many changing catch opportunities and trends over the years. Back in the day, it boasted a fleet of otter-board trawlers that fished for whiting. When that catch declined and/or moved on, they switched to mackerel, and eventually to sole and other flatfish: Dovers, lemons and plaice for which the rougher ground of Southern Channel demanded a different type of gear. So beam trawlers appeared on the scene, soon becoming an icon of the harbour, synonymous with the Brixham fishery. (And just an icon full stop: when asked to define style in 1950, Noël Coward put a Brixham trawler right up there with Cassius Clay, zebras and the Paris Opera House.)

In the summer months, the market is dominated by mixed white fish, shellfish and scallops, but as the days shorten, the fishermen change their gear and go after “black gold” (cuttlefish to you and I), which provides a welcome extra income (without quota) for skippers.

Brixham trawlermen have always been an industrious, innovative bunch, never more so than now. As fisheries legislation has got ever tighter, they have helped pioneer revolutionary net and gear designs that have transformed catch targeting and reduced discards to a fraction of former levels, far below the percentage required. Voluntary on-board CCTV cameras and data capture are helping scientists compile real-time, on-the-ground stock assessment information – which shows that many species and class sizes are recovering and are even abundant. The Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS), initiated by Seafish, has provided skippers and processors with another level of accreditation, assuring buyers from all over the country of Brixham quality.

Barry Young and his predecessor, former trawler skipper Rick “Smudger” Smith, talk passionately about how the market and the fishing community are at the very heart of the town today. Even so, it took a lot of time and effort to secure the £20m funding needed to update the market, requiring years of local campaigning, diplomacy and innumerable late-night meetings.

“We knew there was a bright future for the market, but it needed investment at the right level,” says Barry. “We stuck to our guns and put our case to the local council in Torbay, who saw the value in what we were doing. It was a long hard slog, but we got there and now, not just the market and harbour, but all elements of the community are benefitting.”

That’s plain as a pikestaff to anyone visiting for the Trawler Race or Fishstock. Indeed, the whole town comes alive and there’s a strong sense of pride to the festival atmosphere. Fishstock is a real showcase for community and the ethos that underpins the fishing industry down here: crucially, all funds raised go to the Fishermen’s Mission. Now in its 8th year, Fishstock attracts more than 5,000 visitors to the quayside venue: the market floor and auction rooms are transformed into a carpeted, nautically themed pavilion, full of fishermen, industry reps and artisan producers, all with links to the sea and its harvest.

Jim Portus, CEO of the South West Fish Producers Organisation and instigator and manager of Fishstock, is something of a legend in these parts. Overseeing the one-day event is a massive task but one he obviously relishes. “Fishstock is a celebration of our seafood and heritage,” he says. “It’s a fun-packed day which brings food, drink, music and art together with an underlying educational message for those who love and consume fish and shellfish. We need to demonstrate just how far fishing practice has come and how through the passion and innovation of our fishermen we have reached a point where the challenges we face become less onerous.

“The more we can do to promote what we do, the better – and we have a growing audience. And the charity we’re raising funds for lies at the heart of our being. The Mission plays a vital role in Brixham, providing a lifeline for fishing families who have suffered loss or are enduring hardship.”

Walking around the event itself, it’s hard not to be caught up in Jim’s enthusiasm. There are stalls and stage bedecked with bunting; cookery demonstrations by local chefs; sensational seafood everywhere; local craftspeople and foodies mingling with skippers, deckhands, market staff, processors and merchants in a hubbub of cheerfulness that escalates throughout the day.

And I’m to be a part of it, working smack bang in the heart of things on the Brixham Fish Market fish stall. Slightly overawed, I join up with Barry, Smudger, Mat, Morph, Darren and Ben. I’m issued with the necessary fishmonger’s garb and set to work amidst the most fantastic display of 40 (!) fish and shellfish species, which only hours earlier were craned on to the quay from the boats now lying in their berths. As other, more skilled hands do the specialist work, gutting and filleting like lightning, I get to serve and talk with the customers.

Bands play to the left and right of us and aromas of cooking seafood fill the air from the numerous stalls. Visitors queue to clamber aboard the Barentszee, a typical Brixham beamer, to sample a flavour of life aboard. (Also tied up nearby is The Van Dijck, the scalloper skippered by Drew McLeod, star of this week’s The Catch, who I had a long chat with the day before – but that’s a story for another time.)

Much like on Trawler Race day, the atmosphere gets steadily headier as the day wears on. Our fish simply fly off the slab. Bass, hake, monk and plaice all prove popular and the stack of cooked crabs goes in a trice. The scallops sell out quickly too, and some customers return to our stall again and again, eager for more. You can see why. Top quality, unimpeachable provenance (those are the boats there), combined with the knowledge that all proceeds go to a good cause is a pretty compelling combination.

Lunch appears, courtesy of Robert Simonetti of Simply Fish: succulent plaice fillets in a roll, battered and fried only metres from our pitch. We stop for a moment to enjoy their incredible flavour and we’re off again. And then, suddenly, it’s all over: our once magnificent offering has been reduced to a pile of slush ice and seaweed. I look around at tired but happy faces, as the takings are counted and we start to break the stand down.

What a fantastic, memorable, worthwhile day it’s been. I’ve witnessed a level of enthusiasm, passion and fun that I’ve rarely encountered in any other industry. As I bid my farewells and pick my way through the crowd, I can see that for some, the day is far from over: the party is just beginning. On this occasion, with an early start back to Suffolk awaiting me tomorrow, discretion proves the better part of valour. But that’s OK. There’s always next year.

Mike Warner is an ardent seafood fan who blogs at A Passion for Seafood. He is based in Suffolk and finds inspiration from the diversity of life in Britain’s inshore and shallow seas. Mike is a supporter of the under-10m fishing fleet, advocate of sustainably caught fish and shellfish, and fount of maritime knowledge.


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