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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Brixham Fish Market

It was two years ago during partial covid rules that I did my first photo walk around Brixham, and fell in love with it. I made a series of posts but really wanted to visit the fish market to complete the set. This wasn't to be, as further full lockdowns followed and the market was still closed to the public. Then a few weeks ago I noticed that some dates had become available to do the guided tour, so of course I booked it straight away.

What I hadn't appreciated in full at the time was how early the working day is. Starting at 6.00 is early for most ordinary people, but we also had to get there too, so setting the alarm at 4.00 am was the only way. This to me is the middle of the night. But that really is the point if you want to get the real experience and see the place in action.

This is a beautiful sight at any time of day. Brixham inner harbour with it's brightly lit replica of The Golden Hind. But this is not where all the fish arrive, that is behind me........ at the purpose built, super duper, does everything, Brixham Fish Market. The current site was finally completed after a multi-million pound regeneration scheme lasting several years that involved reclaiming land from the sea. The new site was opened in 2010 by Princess Anne.

Brixham is now England’s largest fish market by value of fish sold. In 2017 this was in excess of £40,000,000 and the record was broken in 2021 achieving £43,600,000. It has since been broken again in 2022.

The current fleet consists of a mix of local day boats and larger beam trawlers which remain at sea for 5 to 7 days at a time. They fish mainly in the English Channel but also operate in waters as far afield as the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea. There are also a number of scallop boats that operate in local waters all year round.

With a strong fishing tradition dating back to the 14th century, Brixham is credited with being one of the birthplaces of trawling. In the 19th century it was recorded that Brixham had 270 sail operated decked trawlers employing 1600 seamen making it “the largest fishery in England”.

The market have a fantastic and informative website so most of the information I have posted here is from that website, but for more detail have a look at it here.

The fleet lands over 40 different species of fish with the main catches consisting of Cuttlefish, Lemon and Dover Sole, Squid, Monkfish and Turbot. There are also plenty of other species on offer including scallops, hake, bass, pollock and plaice.

This is the room solely dedicated to the cuttle fish catch. The floor is black with cuttle fish ink and the smell is quite overpowering for us newbies. The latest stats available are for 2019 when the fleet landed 3282 tons of cuttle fish, the highest fish by volume and value landed at Brixham. The cuttlefish season starts around September and continues through to April. Cuttlefish are prolific feeders and can eat the equivalent of their body weight every day. Known in Brixham as “black gold”.

The fish in the catch are divided into five groups.

Demersal fish live near the ocean floor, like this Gilt Head Bream. It is named for the golden stripe between it's eyes.

The fish is graded by size and weight, and each fish box is labeled to record the area where the fish was caught, the name of the boat and the quality grading score. The buyers and merchants will have access to this information in advance of the auction to help them prepare their bids.

Grey Mullet are plump silvery fish with large scales and flat wide mouths. There are three main species which can be hard to identify. They prefer coastal and estuarine habitats and can often be seen swimming lazily close to the surface in harbours and marinas.

Pelagic fish like these mackerel live in open seas. Mostly caught by inshore boats and a lot is handline caught. Mackerel are a sign of summer's arrival, when they appear inshore in huge numbers all around the UK. As well as being a sustainable seafood choice, they are an important food source for many of our marine predators.

Prior to the start of the auction, the auctioneer logs into the KOSMOS web based clock system to carry out his final checks. Once he is satisfied with the order of sales he sends out a message to the fish buyers stating that the supply catalogue is complete and the auction will start. The auction starts at 6am every week day morning.

The buying audience consists of a mix of owners, agents and representatives from some of the large fish processors, local fish merchants and restaurateurs looking for fresh quality fish to serve onto your plates.The Brixham cloud based auction clock is still the only one in the world.

Hake are round fish caught via static net, or demersal trawled in Scottish waters. MSC Hake is available and the fish is most abundant in the months from March to October. The yield of a Hake can be approximately 50%. Alternative species to Hake are Cod and Haddock.

Flat fish are just what you would expect, flat like the rays that these wings are from. The blonde ray is a large skate that lives close to the sea floor. It likes sandy areas where its ochre-coloured body is camouflaged against the seabed, hiding it from any predators. They are found all around the UK.

Landings of cod are relatively small in Brixham as it is mainly sourced from the cold waters of the Atlantic. Our inshore trawlers will catch them in February and March.

John Dory tend to be caught in the Winter months by the larger boats, and by the smaller boats in the summer months of June to August. They are never caught in vast numbers. However, they are a very tasty and sought-after fish.

The English name John Dory arrived from the French 'jaune doré' meaning 'golden yellow' - a good description for this unusual looking fish. It is also known as "St. Pierre", or "Peter's Fish", Saint Peter being the patron saint of fishermen. A related legend says that the dark spot on the fish's flank is St. Peter's thumbprint.

John Dory is a demersal fish which can be found in water depths ranging from a few metres to several hundred metres deep. They are generally solitary fish. John Dory are predators and feed by hunting smaller fish.

Smooth-hound are a shallow water shark species, which favour sandy, shingle and light broken ground, and tend to stay clear of heavy, rocky ground. They live in relatively shallow water and are seldom found in water more than one hundred metres deep.

They are not commonly eaten in the UK and so not targeted commercially by British vessels (although in the past smooth-hound was sold in fish and chip shops under the name Sweet William, Rock Salmon or Flake).

Red Mullet are caught by the trawlers mainly in mid channel. They are fished all year long but the main season is from late September through to December.

Squid like cuttle fish are Cephalopods and can be seen all year round but are more prolific from August through to December.

Whiting are another fish caught all year round with higher quantities seen in Winter through to Spring when they come in to spawn, usually in January and February.

Gurnard. The majority of these fish are caught and landed by the larger boats. This is a fish with a delicious taste but doesn’t seem so popular with the general public. Gurnard are a small predatory demersal fish, found around most of the British Isles. They are a distinctive looking fish, with a number of unique features. They have a large head which is armoured and spines around the body to defend themselves.

Crustaceans and Shellfish.

Lobsters are one of the most expensive shellfish to buy and always in high demand. They are mostly landed by inshore crabbers during the summer months.

Brown Crab (or “edible” crab) is always very popular although there are not vast amounts landed at this market. Most crab is landed directly from boats to processors in other smaller ports. Crab is more abundant in the winter months and Brixham crab in particular is the finest you can buy.

Scallops are caught using many methods of fishing including dredging, beam trawling and hand diving. They are caught all year round and always fetch a decent price. Scallops are characterized by offering two flavors and textures in one shell: the meat, called "scallop", which is firm and white, and the roe, called "coral", which is soft and often brightly coloured reddish-orange. Sometimes, markets sell scallops already prepared in the shell, with only the meat remaining. Outside the U.S., the scallop is often sold whole. In the UK and Australia, they are available both with and without coral.

Line caught Sea Bass. A fish that we see all year round although we land higher quantities from Autumn through to Winter. The majority of the bass landed is rod and line caught. These are caught by our local boats and also twice a week our refrigerated lorry collect landings from Weymouth/Portland to be sold at the Brixham fish auction.

Brill is another flat fish. Caught all year round but at certain times they will be more abundant, but never in huge quantities. Brill is a flat fish which is part of the Turbot family. Brill have more of an oval shape, and unlike the turbot, the skin of a Brill fish is completely smooth. Brill are generally found in the North East Atlantic, off the South and West coast of Britain. They are fished via gill net or trawled.

Generally caught in deeper water west of Start Point. Monk fish is available throughout the year but is more popular in the Winter months. This is a prime fish and is a must on any fish restaurant menu. Only the large tail is used with the head normally being over 50% of the total weight.

Lemon Sole is a flatfish, and is actually a member of the flounder family rather than the sole.

‘Lemon’ is also a bit of a misnomer, as contrary to popular belief, the flesh doesn’t taste like lemon at all. Instead, it’s theorised that the skin of lemon sole has a similar texture to its citrus counterpart, hence the connection. Despite the trickery of the name, lemon sole is a lovely fish: texture-wise, the flesh is delicate and light, with a fine flavour. The Cornish Fishmonger

Plaice are another widespread fish caught in large quantities mainly from April to August. Distinguished by the red spots on its body. Plaice is a diamond-shaped flatfish that lives on sandy seabeds all around the UK. Younger fish are found close to shore and in estuaries which are an important nursery habitat as they grow. Plaice feed on molluscs and worms - often nipping the siphons or tail ends off buried prey.

This visitor also on the tour would gladly eat any of the above without too much worry.

In support of the Fishermen's mission and now in its 11th year, Brixham Fish Market Tours are back and still proving to be very popular. Early risers won’t want to miss the opportunity to get a fascinating insight into behind-the-scenes operations at England’s largest fish market.

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4 comentarios

David Nurse
David Nurse
15 dic 2022

I loved this post. I have been to Brixham on two occasions for a weeks holiday. Loved it both times and is was a long time ago now, but I am amazed that it is England's largest fish market.

Great shots, you are certainly the early bird who got the worm, err I mean best shots!

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
16 dic 2022
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Several of the boats featured on the recent Trawlers series on BBC 1. It was very good. Peterhead in Scotland is the largest in UK.

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Miembro desconocido
08 oct 2022

Another one of your beautiful posts, both in photo quality and information. Love the photo of the "visitor". Thank you for getting up in the middle of the night to give us the tour. I had not heard of half the fish you presented in this post and probably never would have if you hadn't sacrificed your sleep.😉

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
09 oct 2022
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Thanks Camellia. There are a few harbour shots to follow.

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