Cast your mind back to the spring of 2020. Businesses closed their doors, we all over-used the word ‘unprecedented’, and – for some reason – loo roll was rarer than a blue lobster. It was a difficult and scary time for many. As restaurants shut, markets closed, and supply chains ground to a halt, the Cornish fishing industry was amongst those who faced real uncertainty. At Seafood Cornwall, we were in a unique position to help; the problem wasn’t with consumer demand, but with awareness and logistics. In the modern age where everything (from clothing to the aforementioned loo roll) is delivered to your door, we asked – why not seafood?
What came next was an astonishing community effort from marketers, fishermen, fishmongers, retailers and customers, to keep the Cornish fishing industry afloat by re-thinking the supply chain and delivering fresh Fish to Your Door.
This collaborative project also had the added benefit of showcasing the real diversity of seafood in Cornwall by introducing new varieties of fish and shellfish into thousands of UK household. We provided people across the country with a fresh taste of the Cornish coast, and kickstarted a renaissance in locally sourced, seasonal British seafood.
The Cornish fishing industry has been in a precarious place for many years. Long-term changes paint a mixed picture. On the one hand, the number of fish landed in Cornish docks grew between 2000-2019, with their total value also increasing from £26 million to £43 million. However, there are fewer fishermen, with the number of vessels decreasing from 724 to 543 over the same period.
Then, in January 2020, Britain officially withdrew from the European Union. There was initial optimism about what this could mean for deregulation of British fishing, “We’ve had a tough time for several years now, mostly because of fishing quotas” said Joe Clive, the owner of Newlyn Fish Company, “but we’ve been feeling more optimistic about the future because of Brexit.” But there was in equal measure, an underlying anxiety about red-tape and disruption to European exports, with Europe a huge marketplace for the county’s fisheries.
On 23 March 2020, people across the country were coming to terms with the prospect of life in lockdown. For Cornish fishermen, this meant having no demand for their produce, with restaurants, hotels and other retailers forced to shut and the Cornish seaside holiday trade lying indefinitely dormant.
The pandemic arrived after terrible winter weather, with smaller inshore vessels lacking the financial resilience to cope with a huge supply chain disruption. “A lot of boats were struggling anyway,” said Dave Bond, a fisherman from Looe, Cornwall, “the weather was just starting to settle down but now we’ve got this to deal with.”
By the middle of the first week of lockdown, distribution of shellfish came to a near total halt as a result of disruptions to exports and restaurant closures, with the price of white fish also plummeting. “The price for pollock went from £4 a kilo to 80 pence on Plymouth market,” said Bond, “from a fisherman's point of view, it’s a disaster.”
It wasn’t just a hit to people’s wallets either. Seafood Cornwall was set up as an initiative not only to promote Cornish seafood but to also tell the stories of local communities whose culture is rooted in maritime and fishing heritage. The pandemic came to represent more of an existential threat to the very way of life of the towns and villages scattered across the Cornish coastline.
The first lockdown inspired a strong sense of community togetherness and neighbourly compassion. It was in the same spirit of community cooperation in which Fish To Your Door was launched by Seafood Cornwall. The service was originally envisioned as a way for those self-isolating to get deliveries of fresh fish, but the ambition was to create a service that could be accessed far and wide to connect people to Cornish merchants selling seasonal seafood.
The concept was to create a register of Cornish fish merchants and would-be fish buyers orchestrated through Seafood Cornwall’s website and social media. A fleet of vans which would have otherwise been used to transport the fish to restaurants and retailers in London and elsewhere were repurposed to carry out contact-free, local deliveries instead.
The service proved an instant hit. Within 48 hours of lockdown being announced, staff working on Fish To Your Door had manually connected over 1,000 self-isolating and vulnerable people across the UK to Cornish fishermen and fish merchants. More than three requests per minute were flooding in via social media.
The response to Fish To Your Door, from businesses and customers to MPs and celebrity chefs were resoundingly positive.
The impact was immediately noticeable to businesses. Naomi Bullus, Director of Celtic Fish & Game commented a week after its launch: “Thanks to the #FishToYourDoor initiative, plus our own efforts, we have kept the doors open.”
The Newlyn Fish Company, which had been doing home deliveries since the company launched in 1983, also saw a sudden uptake of interest. “I’ve had delivery requests from people whose doors I’ve been going past for years without them noticing”, said Joe Clive.
The reaction from customers was just as appreciative, giving messages of support such as: “Thank you so much for going the extra mile to connect fishing families with the locals” and “I had some delicious fish delivered the next day and would like to place another order.”
Derek Thomas, MP for St. Ives also heaped praise on the initiative, as a lifeline to both the fishing industry and vulnerable consumers “Fishing communities and seafood businesses deserve our support more than ever at this time – and it’s reassuring to see a system delivering healthy, local fish directly to households when many are struggling with supermarket shops.”
The popularity of fresh fish deliveries was fueled by and endorsed through the appearance of fish boxes on TV and online. James Martin on ITV’s This Morning showcased fish from Fresh Cornish Fish based in Newlyn while Tom Aikens shot a cooking demonstration on Instagram using fish delivered from Celtic Fish & Game.
In June 2020, nearing 3,000 sign-ups, we introduced the NHS Fish Fridays scheme which offered discounts of between 25% and 50% to NHS staff in recognition of their tireless efforts, working around the clock on the front lines of the pandemic to keep our loved ones safe. Between 14 May - 12 June, over 500 discounted deliveries were made to hard-working NHS staff.
Steve Double, the MP for St. Austell and Newquay heralded NHS Fish Fridays as “a shining example of what Cornwall is all about” and it speaks to the success of Fish To Your Door that the fishing industry was able to give back to the community in such a significant way.
Over a year after its inception, we built the “Merchant Matchmaker” webpage. Think of it as a dating app, but rather than getting matched with a love interest, you’re matched with a Cornish seafood supplier – a “sole-mate” if you will!
We put in place an automated process of connecting buyers with merchants, allowing customers to search for a specific merchant or be matched to one based on their location and seafood preferences. By this time, Fish To Your Door had become well established, helping Cornish fisheries through three lockdowns.
Reflecting on the success of the Fish To Your Door campaign, Paul Trebilcock, former CEO of the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation said “#FishToYourDoor was set up rapidly, as a direct response to the pandemic, but has now grown into a remarkable scheme that has helped to strengthen fishing businesses in Cornwall... Fishing communities had an incredibly tough 2020, like all of us, and proved just how adaptable they can be.”
As well as providing a boost to Cornish fishermen, Fish To Your Door signalled a cultural shift too. Some varieties of native fish, such as megrim sole or monkfish were almost exclusively exported to Europe, with Brits favouring traditional staples like cod and haddock from supermarkets or their local fish and chips shop.
Deliveries of a variety of pre-prepared, seasonal fish directly from Cornish fish merchants encouraged people to experiment with new recipes. It repositioned a lot of non-conventional, homegrown species from the domain of fine dining seafood restaurants to cook-at-home meals. One customer, Katie Stilwell, commented “With an impressive variety of incredible Cornish species, there’s always a chance to try something new and if you can’t make your mind up, I found that all merchants offer fresh fish boxes with mixed species. You can also decide if you want your fish filleted so you know that when your fish arrives at your door, it can go straight into the pan!”
With continued supply chain disruptions, overfishing of popular species and the rising environmental cost of importing fish, Fish To Your Door has been part of a wider movement towards supporting the Cornish fishing industry, and introducing local, healthy, sustainably sourced, seasonal fish into our national diet.
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