Kevin (that's his father on the left) has been a fishmonger in Smelly Alley, Reading, for 51 years. Here are some of his thoughts. If you've got anything to contribute, your comments are welcome! Who's that on the right? - Gareth, he says it feels like he has been a fishmonger for 51 years!
MACKEREL STOCKS - HOW THEY CHANGED FROM ABUNDANCE TO SCARCITY IN THE 1970s
When I started work as a fishmonger in the 1960s mackerel were really plentiful around the British coast. Most were caught around Cornwall, although we did and do get mackerel from other waters, such as Scottish. We had plentiful supplies of mackerel, often driving down to Flushing Quay to pick them up in a Leyland refrigerated 350 EA van. It was the slowest and most heavy-to-drive vehicle, and it was in the days before the M4/M5. When the weather was bad I sold lovely frozen mackerel from Suttons of Cornwall, and thought that those days would go on forever. They sold frozen mackerel in blue waxed 1 stone cardboard boxes, fresh ones in green boxes. But then Suttons closed, something I never expected would happen.
The reason for the decline in mackerel stocks?
In the 1970s, when we had a six-mile fishing limit and only small trawlers went fishing for mackerel, the mackerel fishery was very sustainable. The mackerel caught were very large, some as big as a kilo. It seemed to me that the rest of the world was envious of this and wanted some of the action. The Russians had very large fishing boats which they placed outside the six-mile limit. They were called Klondikers after a Canadian gold rush in the 1890s. Irish and Scottish fishermen were only too eager to catch mackerel within the six-mile limit and transfer their catches to the Klondikers. If that volume of mackerel had been sold on the home market it would have been worthless because there was just too much for sale, and we didn’t need them, it was already possible to buy cheap mackerel at ports such as Flushing Quay, from home boats.
Boatload after boatload of mackerel were taken to the Klondikers. Once on board the mackerel were frozen.
It took something like seven years to destroy the mackerel stocks. Like Suttons in Penzance, many of the ports that dealt in mackerel declined – the fishermen’s buildings in Flushing Quay are now a café. The government did nothing, even though the subject was debated in Parliament.
There are boats still catching lovely Cornish mackerel, but obviously from smaller stocks. Mackerel this week (early July 2018) rose to £10 a kilo to buy on the market, that’s probably because in the calm seas the mackerel could see the nets coming.
So, to sum up, mackerel was the most plentiful, cheapest fish, the one that children could catch with a rod and a hook. It has never made a comeback from overfishing and I doubt it ever will.
The mackerel that were caught only went for fertilizer. It was greed that destroyed a whole industry, and the government should have stopped it.
Some MPs have farms, but none have fishing boats.
Buy MSC mackerel, line caught, whole fish or fillets
We've just sold our first wild salmon, won't worry you about the price! They will become more available and cheaper as the summer goes on (this was written at the beginning of June 2018).
Sea trout are dropping in price as they become more plentiful, and if this year is as good as last year, we will be happy.
Wild salmon, like sea trout, will drop in price as the season progresses through the summer, but they are never cheap. Not like the days when salmon was cheap and thought of as poor-quality food. I’ve read stories of pupils at private schools in the 1800s being told they would only have to eat salmon (all wild in those days) three times a week.
So why is wild salmon so scarce now?
First of all, salmon going upstream to breed do not really eat. They may take the odd fly, but the fact they are not looking for food is why they are hard to catch. When we used to have big wooden boxes of wild salmon in the 1960s you would always get one fish that was white-fleshed because it had become trapped in fresh water for a long time and lost its pink colour that it had got from eating crustaceans in the sea.
But the main reason for the massive drop in salmon catches is because the areas where salmon fed at sea were discovered in the late 1950s – off Greenland. Before this the life of the salmon was a mystery. In the 1960s Norwegian, Faroese, Danish and Greenland fishing boats started fishing with drift nets of up to 5kg long, and the area became the biggest salmon fishery of all time. In 1971 2700 tonnes of salmon were caught. In the fishmonger-fish wholesaler world the blame is always put onto two Danish fishing boats that maintained radio silence when fishing for salmon. These large ships caught thousands and thousands of tonnes of wild sea salmon. In our small shop in Smelly Alley, Reading, we would have three 100lb cardboard boxes of wild salmon a week. The salmon were skin damaged because they had been badly handled on the deck of the fishing boats, then frozen. But they were cheaper than herrings, which at the time were our cheapest fish. There were 16,000 fishmongers in those days, not the 300 that there are today, so you can imagine the volume of wild salmon that was sold.
One of the old wooden salmon boxes that wild salmon from Perthshire used to travel in. Don't confuse these wild salmon with the mass-fished salmon that this blog is describing! The box is now used as a cat box, they love it! You can just make out "Frosts Reading", the previous name (and official name) of The Smelly Alley Fish Company.
These fish weren’t just being sold in the UK, but worldwide, for approximately 12 to 15 years. The Danish boats kept going until there weren’t many salmon left.
Not much is known about this phase in the history of salmon fishing. I have seen, after much searching, a few reports and a chapter in Biological Diversity by Paul Hatcher and Nick Battey, published in 2011. I do know that questions were asked in Parliament, and fears were expressed that salmon would become extinct.
In my opinion, as a fishmonger, it will take 300 years to build up stocks, if recovery is possible at all.
This is a label that we photographed on supermarket fish. We think the texture and flavour of fish deteriorates when it is frozen, maybe not by much, but the labels on supermarket fish advise you that you can go on and freeze this fish AGAIN, and every freezing is another step in the decline in the fish's flavour and texture.
Our fresh fish is FRESH, it's never been frozen, and it's often caught the day before it's on sale in our fishmongers and online.What's the point of buying defrosted fish when you can buy it fresh from a real fishmonger?
These days we get daily deliveries directly to the fishmongers in Reading from all around the UK and overseas. One day about 40 years ago, before small businesses like ours had refrigerated vehicles, we went to Billingsgate on our usual twice-weekly journey to buy some fish. Billingsgate has turned into a semi-retail market, and bad London traffic means that we don't get fresh fish from there any more, it's just too hard to get there.Once there we were offered some lampreys, they're eel-like parasitic creatures that used to be common on European menus, especially for rich people on Fridays, because they are quite a meaty fish. They cling onto their prey with their sucker-like mouths and suck their blood. Although they can be up to a metre long, they are usually smaller (and apparently are used as bait and you can buy them in fishing tackle shops - we don't go fishing!). On this particular day our van was in for a service, so we went to Billingsgate in our Mini Clubman (no, we don't use our own cars for collecting fish these days, this was 40 years ago!). On the way back, unknown to us, some of the lampreys escaped. The fishmonger's wife was most upset, when she drove the car later that day, to find that the lampreys had suspended themselves on the headlining of the car with their sucker mouths, and were dropping off onto her as she was driving.