Fresh thinking – future-proofing the East Sussex fishing trade
Guest writer Paul Farley discusses the future of the fishing trade within East Sussex.
Anyone with a taste for seafood knows you can’t beat freshly caught fish.
But, as with many traditional trades operating in today’s market, what seems a simple premise (take a boat to sea, land a catch, then return to shore to sell it) is actually far from it. After overcoming irregular hours, physical hardship and sometimes-treacherous working conditions, Britain’s dayboat fishermen must contend with a complex regulatory framework, which has only become more testing since Brexit.
However, if these skilled micro-businesses – many of which have survived unchanged for centuries – can adapt, growing demand for sustainably sourced foodstuffs indicates a bright future.
East Sussex is home to some of the UK’s oldest fishing fleets, which play a small, yet valuable role in the county’s economy. With the pressure to modernise greater than ever, individuals and businesses along the coast have developed new approaches. With financial support from widespread sources, and expert advice on how to obtain it, these entrepreneurial enterprises are demonstrating unsinkable resourcefulness in developing strategies to survive – and thrive.
In Eastbourne, a South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) grant is helping Eastbourne Fishermen’s under 10 Community Interest Company (CIC) purchase and transform the fleet’s open-air site into Fisherman’s Quay, a combined processing, storage, retail, tourist and educational destination.
“The CIC had interest-free loans and lots of support from public bodies. Now they’ll own these assets for at least 75 years, and by taking control of the means of production, they’ll be able to add significant value.”
Chris Williams, UK fisheries expert
The CIC’s Director, Michael Newton-Smith, says major investment in boats and equipment, plus the 24-hour access afforded by Sovereign Harbour, made Eastbourne a prime fishing base before these upgrades – and the quay is a “really big jump” forward. “The businesses in Eastbourne’s fishing community have access to state-of-the-art facilities, and can sell their catch to whoever they decide – they’re no longer beholden to a single merchant,” he says.
Similarly, nearby Newhaven recently secured £12.6m from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund to help support the town’s fishing sector in a challenging economic environment. The scheme, entitled ‘Capturing the Value of the Catch’, covers new landing stages, processing and storage facilities and a restaurant, with a view to maximising the value of the catch landed in Newhaven for the local economy. Work is underway on the feasibility aspects of the project, with a view to construction during 2023 and 2024.
Hastings houses Europe’s largest beach-launched fleet. The only British town with FLAG (Fisheries Local Action Group) status, Hastings continues to benefit from European funding, and is part of Defra’s Coastal Change Pathfinder Programme.
Recently, with help from Locate East Sussex and the Hastings Fisherman’s Protection Society, fleet members have made successful applications for Fisheries & Seafood Scheme (FASS) funding, to cover vital improvements to boats and launch equipment (read more here).
Further east, fledgling enterprise family Chapman’s of Rye – the coastal sister business of a wholesaling operation in Sevenoaks, Kent – invites the town’s fishermen to deliver catches directly to a modern depot, to be distributed at home and abroad.
There’s significant demand for fish from British waters,” says MD Keith Chapman, “so, with close support from East Sussex County Council, we developed a hub that could cope with it. Now, we’re working with more boats than anyone else in the country. The more fishermen that use it the better, as it keeps the prices down for everyone involved.”
MD Keith Chapman
The past decade – and last two years in particular – has seen a step change in how the East Sussex fishing industry operates. The near-shuttering of the hospitality sector deprived the trade of a vital market, but with normality returning, so too has the appetite for fresh fish. “Hospitality’s in a really good place at the moment, and by August  it’ll be back to pre-Covid levels,” says Keith Chapman.
Direct retail is another important avenue, and factors into many of the new strategies. “Now we have the facilities, I believe we can sell much more to our local community,” says Michael Newton-Smith. “Eastbourne’s a big town, with lots of middle-income families. Selling good-quality fish to them, and securing a better price, should be an easy win.”
Keith Chapman says he “wouldn’t have even looked at retail” 10 years ago, but acknowledges the need to react to new demands: “The industry’s changing a lot, and we have to be open minded about it.”
Despite the potential for domestic growth, Keith sees export as essential. He enjoys success in Western Europe, trading in species which have little commercial value in the UK, such as small plaice and sole.
It’s a complex business, requiring capital, approved premises, and a good logistical brain, says Chapman’s Head of Exports, Louise Chisholm – but Rye’s export hub can open that door, and its staff numbers are growing in line with demand. “There’s a really good future ahead of us,” she says.
Chapman’s is also looking to introduce apprenticeships, paving the way for the next generation of skilled workers.
The driving force behind all this activity is fresh consumer demand for fresh food. More and more people want to understand the provenance of what they’re eating, and to mitigate their impact on the environment – and this means a renaissance for traceable, sustainably caught fish and seafood.
According to the Marine Stewardship Council, 72% of UK consumers now recognise the importance of only consuming fish and seafood that comes from sustainable sources, and spent £1.3b on its certified foodstuffs in the UK and Ireland in 2020 – a figure that’s increased more than tenfold in a decade.
“Consumers increasingly want to understand the origin of their food, so the sustainable local food movement definitely offers potential for smaller, in-shore catches.”
Representative from Regeneration Team at Lewes District council
And there’s even greater potential if consumer perceptions can be realigned. “Marketing matters,” says the owner of three-boat Hastings business, Leeside Fishing, who says people need to rethink their buying habits: “In Europe, they go crazy for cuttlefish – so why not here? When the hot weather hits, there’s an abundance of spider crabs – but no-one wants to buy them with that name, so locally they’re going to try selling them as ‘Rye Bay King Crab’ instead!”
Low-value crab and fish, such as whiting, dab and flounder, could end up returning better prices for Keith Chapman, who is looking to establish a processing area dedicated to the production of stocks, soups and crab cakes.
“Public attitudes to fish have changed,” he says. “People want to know what’s sustainable, and are more open to trying different things that haven’t traditionally been marketed in the UK.”
Buoyed by invaluable funding support and advice, these progressive businesses are striving to make an old trade fit for the future, and seizing every competitive advantage going.
The Regeneration Team suggests that, despite the ever-changing rules, and competition from big industry, there remains “the possibility of more effective regulation of fishing areas to support a fair playing field” for dayboat operators – which would enable them to play a more pivotal role in the nation’s future.
Michael Newton-Smith explains: “It’s much more important now that we look after the renewables that we didn’t know were renewables. Fish and shellfish that are well managed are effectively a renewable food source – and a high-quality, cost-effective choice.”
Throw in the environmental benefits, greater diversity, new routes to market, and the tourist draw of heritage industry, and you have a truly fresh recipe for success on the East Sussex coast.
Locate East Sussex have supported local fisherman to access funding vital for the sustainability and progression of their business. To see how we can help you. Get in Touch