The Great British fishmonger comeback

There was quite the buzz when a new fishmonger opened its doors in my quiet corner of London a few weeks ago. The main reason for the fervor was that it’s the first time in 20 years that our modest high street has a wet fish shop to call its own. But this seafood start-up isn’t a speculative one-off — new independent fishmongers have been popping up all over the country, tapping into the growing interest consumers are showing for the food that they eat and the not-unrelated swing in favor of U.K. produce.

The U.K. fishmonger trade currently comprises around 950 independent operations that vary from traditional fish shops to farmer’s market stalls and mobile traders. It’s estimated their collective market share is around GBP 250 million (USD 416.2 million, EUR 313.2 million) annually.

While the number of independents is significantly lower than the industry’s heyday in the late 1940s when there were between 7,000 and 8,000 fishmongers, the National Federation of Fishmongers (NFF) confirmed that new blood is most definitely coming into the sector. The federation also told SeafoodSource that while there have been more new businesses opening in London — a trend that is mainly attributable to the size of the capital — the fishmonger trade is growing in many regions.

“Up until three or four years ago, fishmongers were on a steady decline with the number of people retiring outweighing the number of new entrants. But now it has swung the other way. There are more new entrants, including more young people, joining the trade,” said Tim Silverthorne, past-president of the NFF and a retired fourth-generation fishmonger. “Probably for every five retirees, there are six new openings. Of course, that’s not a massive difference, but it’s still a very encouraging turnaround.”

Silverthorne also points out that while traditional fishmonger numbers are but a fraction of what they were 60 or 70 years ago, the supermarket boom that has taken place during this same period has seen many fish counters opened within superstores. Therefore, when combined with the independents, there is still something like 2,000 wet fish counters in operation today, he said.

As a trade body, the NFF represents and provides product liability insurance for about half the independent fishmongers in the country. These businesses tend to specialize at the upper-end of the market, selling chilled, fresh seafood rather than the frozen and defrosted products favored by most of the multiples. They are, therefore, more likely to source their fish from local fishermen or U.K. wholesale fish markets. My fishmonger, for example, gets all his fish from nearby Billingsgate Market.

And while it’s widely accepted that independents cannot compete with the buying power of the supermarket giants, the price chasm is not as wide as it once was.

“Supermarkets are not as cheap as they were with their fish, their prices have been creeping up. Yes, they can deliver fantastic offers on farmed salmon and seabass and undercut fishmongers because they buy these species in such large quantities. But I monitor supermarket prices on behalf of the federation and even their farmed salmon is not that cheap nowadays. Independent fishmongers can compete with many of them,” said Silverthorne.

He further believes that supermarkets find fresh fish more challenging than most other food categories. This, he said, presents a clear opportunity for independent fishmongers to prove their worth: by sourcing a good selection of top-quality fresh fish and then encouraging trade through the door with good service, personality and specialist product knowledge.

In the introduction to his bestselling book “Floyd on Fish,” published in 1985, the celebrity chef Keith Floyd (1943-2009) wrote that the U.K. population’s declining consumption of fresh fish was directly attributable to traditional fish shops becoming “a thing of the past,” and that “it’s our fault for not encouraging the fishmongers.” With fishmongering now staging a comeback, there will be high hopes for a boost in fresh fish sales too.


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