In order to purchase fresh fish and shellfish at the first point of sale, merchants are up bright and early for the 6am auction. Buying, dealing with, and transporting large volumes of catch from bigger boats, merchants are vital to supporting the basic infrastructure of the industry; without them the market, ice, fuel, storage, and much more would not exist. The market caters for a range of needs, hosting big buyers like Trelawney as well as smaller buyers like Dave Seabourne.
After securing their purchase at the market, buyers will take the catch in various directions: to wholesalers, processors, fish shops, restaurants, and the wider supply chain across the UK and into Europe.
The market echoes with the sounds of increasingly intense bidding – the chants of ‘yes, yes, go on, go on’ ending with a final ‘yes’ to secure the purchase or a conceding ‘no’ when the price gets too high. Suddenly there is a hush as the auctioneer waits and hopes someone else will bid but, if the silence lasts more than a few seconds, the catch is yours.
From door-to-door salesmen and local fishmongers to exporters and retailers, the merchants and buyers are looking to come away with different volumes of fish depending on the next step in their chain – and have different sized wallets to match. Part of the process is learning how not to get trapped in channels you can’t afford.
It’s not just an intricate system technically but also socially; everyone here knows how far to push each other, who to avoid, and what everyone else does with their catch in addition to the tactics they’ve developed on their own. Outside the market they go for pints, but inside rivalries preside.
The fish and shellfish then move up to the next rung of the supply chain ladder – some staying local, some going off in different directions around the UK, and some being taken to other countries. The majority of catch for some species like Megrim get taken to France, Spain, Italy, and sometimes the Netherlands depending on the fish. Some species like lemon sole stay in the country as a rule: these are the ones we like too much to give away!
Craig Tonkin’s family business Fresh Cornish Fish is almost everything a company in the fishing industry could be. Craig only buys fish from Newlyn market, which then goes straight into one of Fresh Cornish Fish’s four ‘arms’: fish boxes, door-to-door selling, domestic sales sales throughout the UK and exports into Europe, or direct to the public via their own fish shop in Newlyn.
Every week Craig also sets up a stall in St Agnes which is always greeted with the same excited queues of returning customers.
Almost everything sold by Fresh Cornish Fish is certified as coming from Cornwall – the only county in the country where you are never more than three miles from the ocean.
Fishing is integral to Cornish life, and has become what Craig calls a ‘hand me down industry’. Working with fish is part of being Cornish, and that has made the industry expert at what they do in this part of the world.
‘It’s in our blood. It’s what we do, what we’ve known our whole lives,’ Craig says: ‘We breathe and sleep fish’. They know what is good and what’s bad; when to eat it and when not to; what works and what doesn’t. They know fish, how to keep it fresh and look after it, so that their customers are getting the best possible product.
The jewel in the Fresh Cornish Fish crown is their online fishmongers, which allows the customer to select the fish they would like or have it chosen by an expert based on seasonality and prices at different times of year.
When an order is placed, Craig goes to the market with that order in mind and the fresh fish is with the customer within 24 hours (weather permitting!). In fact, this is the ethos of Fresh Cornish Fish, who ‘cut out the middle man’ (the supermarket) and keep it ‘as fresh as can be’. Craig believes that many people who say they don’t like fish usually haven’t had it fresh enough!
The monthly fish box club gives customers the opportunity to try new things. You give Craig a budget and he fills your box with the best bargains on all kinds of fish from the market. A winter fish box, for example, might contain wild bass, red mullet and skate wings, while in summer you’re likely to get hake, pollack, lemon sole, and mackerel.
Choosing seasonal species also makes eating seafood more sustainable: demand spreads out across fisheries (rather than focusing on one or two popular species) and only what is plentiful at any given time is taken out of the sea.
Sustainability is important to Craig, whose business and passion depends on it. He believes that ‘mindful fishing’ allows a ‘pristine’ product for consumers while ensuring that a fishery is never fished out. ‘People can still make a living catching fish slowly,’ Craig says, ‘because the price is higher’: consumers appreciate the freshness and quality this method brings.
While Fresh Cornish Fish have found ways to cut down on packaging elsewhere, there is no current alternative to the polystyrene boxes that, waterproof and substantial, are so essential to fish delivery. However, an upcoming scheme from Fresh Cornish Fish will see a return label inserted into their delivery boxes so that customers can send them back to be washed and re-used.
A box return scheme isn’t the only thing Fresh Cornish Fish has in store for their customers. In fact, Craig has many innovative ideas either in the pipeline or implementation stage, including an online recipe sharing community and a social media-based scheme where consumers watch a boat coming in and can order its fish to arrive the next day.
‘I stand at the market every morning, looking at the sunrise, the seagulls, and the fish, and just think: Why would you want to do anything else?’
Craig is there every day the market is open, which is five days a week. He goes in for about four AM – even though it starts at six – so that he can ‘scout about’, seeing what is going to be good and then getting straight onto the phone to his European customers so that they can form a ‘shopping list’.
Then the auction starts.
The market is never the same and there are ‘a million factors that might affect what you do,’ Craig tells Seafood Cornwall. A major benefit is knowing the other people on the market well, as Craig does, which at least gives you some degree of predictability.
‘It’s about looking to see who’s bidding, and deciding what they’re bidding on and how much they want to take – like a game of poker’. Buyers mess around and have fun with each other while also making sure they have secured the best deal they can for themselves. ‘It’s all jovial; there’s no animosity,’ says Craig: ‘It’s just business!’
Open five days a week, the market ensures a fresh supply of fish is being channeled through the supply chain. The fact that Newlyn still has a shout auction means that prices stay competitive. Buyers are able to pick up, touch, smell and feel their fish, pointing to the exact stack they want to take away and guaranteeing their own and their customers’ fish.
Craig’s family have been buying from Newlyn market for over 30 years – and that’s just one line of the family. His ancestors, dating as far back as the 18th century, were fishing out of Newlyn, and generations have followed in their footsteps.
Peter Tonkin, Craig’s father, was a fisherman but decided to come ashore and sell rather than catch fish after he was rescued from his boat at sea. He started with door-to-door selling, which is still an important part of Fresh Cornish Fish today.
After a brief stint in another job, Craig was at Fresh Cornish Fish on his 19th birthday and has been there ever since. He took over from his father about 10 years ago, and, seeing an opportunity with the internet, set up their website.
In terms of marketing, Fresh Cornish Fish go only by word of mouth. Craig likes to keep it personal, small, and organic. Accustomed to larger companies, customers can’t believe they are talking to Craig himself when they call up with a query!
Craig keeps up these ‘human conversations’ and relationships at each stage of the supply chain, knowing everyone who deals with his fish from the customers themselves to the ‘fantastic fishermen’ who catch it. Despite the range of seafood that arrives in a fish box, Craig could tell anyone who asked which fish had come from which boat.
Fresh Cornish Fish are masters at the traditional practice of fish smoking and do it the old fashioned way, with nothing but oak chippings and salt.
They soak fillets of Cornish haddock or hake in brine for 20 minutes before putting them on racks and leaving them to dry. A pile of oak chippings is built underneath which they then set on fire and leave overnight.
The result is premium, sustainable fish with a smoky oak flavour and a beautiful natural yellow colour, without the need to add colouring.
Seafood Cornwall #FaveFlavours: Choosing a favourite fish dish for Craig is a ‘really hard question’ but, ultimately, ‘you can’t beat a good chowder’. Craig loves to make chowder for his family with big pieces of his smoked hake, chunky potatoes, cream and shallots.
The trick is to bake your own loaf of bread, hollow it out, pour in the chowder, and eat by tearing off bits of the bread and dipping them in. ‘That for a cold, wet, winter’s night,’ Craig told us, ‘is just wonderful’.
Warming and hearty, it’s a great meal for friends and family. His young children love it!
The sixth episode of This Fishing Life, aired on Feb 11th 2020 on BBC 2, features Craig. Catch it here.
Fresh Cornish Fish were also featured on BBC1’s Now Show and a cooking show by James Martin that is yet to be released.