Fishing Stories: Ian Oliver

Ian Oliver has only ever had two jobs: smoking fish in a fish shop (at the age of 17) and at Newlyn fish market. Although work in fisheries runs in the family – his grandfather was a sardine exporter – Ian didn’t choose a life at sea.

Instead, with a huge variety of roles in the industry, Ian opted for a job at the gateway to the seafood supply chain: working as an auctioneer at Newlyn market. He’s been doing it ever since.

Image Credit: Craig Tonkin (Fresh Cornish Fish)

‘I absolutely love it,’ he told Seafood Cornwall. ‘It’s a way of life down here’.

A way of life

Although the Market opens at 6am, Ian is there from 5am to oversee the organisation of the fish coming in and check all the Cornish seafood is ready for sale. Some of his team are there from 5pm the night before, working a night shift into the early hours to get the fish labelled and sorted.

One of Ian’s busiest days is New Year’s day, which he hasn’t taken off for several years: ‘I wouldn’t want to do anything else!’

Ian’s favourite part of the job is that it involves ‘so much banter – so much fun’. The witty remarks between buyers and generations-old bidding techniques make Newlyn a brilliantly energetic market, with an unbeatable atmosphere. That energy has been handed down through generations of fishing families, with third- fourth- and fifth-generation fishermen taking their fathers’ and grandfathers’ places.

With any market comes market politics: bidding is complex and competitive sport! Some buyers might hold off on bidding until there’s a tonne of hake ready to go, prices may drop off towards the end, rivals chase each other until one drops out early. One buyer might swoop in at the last minute and take a tonne in one go – but if two or three others have had the same idea there’s a panic as prices spike.

Good fun as it is, these are meaningful relationships that go deeper than the banter of the market. After a busy day’s work everyone will catch up over a pint, at Christmas – when they’ve shut down the market – market staff and fishermen celebrate by watching the Newlyn Harbour Lights, and, sometimes, skippers will give Ian some fish to take home. ‘They’re as good as gold,’ he tells us. ‘We look after them, they look after us’.

Unique skills

Together with the market’s second Auctioneer, Ryan Ladd, Ian uses a blend of skills to do what he does properly. Alongside the multitasking of listening, writing and talking all at the same time, auctioneers have to be confident, making decisions and sticking by them.

It also takes a deep understanding of the market’s social system. Ian knows that some buyers tend to buy certain types of fish, and will shout at the top of his lungs to get them over in time if he thinks they are going to miss out: if they’re not there, it will affect the prices.

In order to make as much on each box as possible, Ian acts as if every box of fish belongs to him. ‘It sounds ridiculous, but you can come off there after two hours thinking you’ve had a hard day’s graft,’ Ian told us: ‘like a day at the beach: you feel tired!’

But the day doesn’t end there. Once Ian has sold the morning’s prime fish and handed the book to Ryan (who sells what is in the refrigerated room), the morning market closes and Ian is back in the office – booking boats in to land and selling fish to customers from the packing shed.

‘Sustainability is at the forefront’

Modern communication has allowed Newlyn market to ensure efficiency and freshness further down the supply chain as the buyers, processors, fishmongers, and hotels/restaurants can see what is coming in via social media and plan orders accordingly.

Ian is passionate about the sustainability of the system, stating that fish stocks have ‘got to be policed and preserved for future generations to continue fishing – once the max is caught, that’s it.

‘Sustainability is at the forefront of fishing – across the board – and more so now than ever’.

Prime fish on our doorstep

Ian believes that, geographically, Newlyn is in the ‘perfect position’ for seafood. Just by turning in different directions out of the port you point yourself towards the different catch areas of the huge range of ‘prime fish’ species that are ‘right on our doorstep’.

Seafood is ‘the hub, the heart of Newlyn’, Ian says – and not just for the fishermen. Fishing affects employment and everyday life right through the supply chain and into Cornish communities.

Back in the days that the market was only open on a Saturday, Ian and his friends used to work there for pocket money. Now, open six days a week, it not only directly employs several staff members but also forms a central part of the industry: ‘Newlyn revolves around the market, if you ask me. It’s such a vital part of the community.’


Seafood Cornwall #FaveFlavours: ‘Without a doubt,’ Ian’s preferred fish dish is lemon sole. A friend who runs a Chinese restaurant taught him how to cook it steamed with a soy sauce and ginger marinade. ‘You drizzle the sauce and it crackles and sizzles,’ he says. ‘It’s honestly fantastic – beautiful’.

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