‘It will benefit the powerful’: row over Brixham fish market levelling up plan

A diverse group of sceptics ranging from conservationists to the local yacht club, town councillors and day boat skippers has expressed concern at the bid by Torbay council for £20m of cash from the levelling up fund.

This year a boat called Margaret of Ladram, owned by the biggest fishing company in the port, Waterdance, broke the Brixham port record with a catch that sold for £155,000. Though the vessel is based in Brixham, the fish were caught not off Devon but in the Irish Sea off the Welsh coast.

Steven Morris www.theguardian.com

A scheme to double the size of England’s most lucrative fish market and provide more room for “industrial” trawlers using levelling up funds has been condemned by green campaigners, smaller-scale fishers and leisure boat enthusiasts.

Critics claim the plans for the Devon harbour town of Brixham, which is expected to land a record-breaking £50m worth of fish this year, will lead to more environmentally damaging fishing practices, increase lorry movements and benefit a few powerful businesses rather than improving the town as a whole.

A diverse group of sceptics ranging from conservationists to the local yacht club, town councillors and day boat skippers has expressed concern at the bid by Torbay council for £20m of cash from the levelling up fund.

“It will be good for the big boys who already make shitloads of money,” said Tristan Northway, who skippers a 9-metre fishing boat, Adela, and sells directly from the deck of his vessel. “But it will do nothing for the rest of us and nothing for the town.”

Harry Barton, the chief executive of Devon Wildlife Trust, said the expansion would lead to further damage to the seabed and greater carbon emissions.

“Trawling and dredging are among the most destructive activities that happen in the marine environment,” he said. “The fishing industry is a major contributor to carbon emissions. This is partly from the emissions of the engines but more significantly because dredgers stir up the sediments on the sea floor, resulting in large amounts of carbon being released.”

Richard Spreckley, the commodore of Brixham Yacht Club, said the people who would most benefit were the owners of the port’s beam trawlers, larger boats that drop large, heavy-duty nets attached to steel beams into the water and drag them along the seabed.

Spreckley said he doubted claims that expanding the quay and market would lead to more jobs for local people, pointing out that the boats already had to supplement crews with fishers from the Philippines because they could not find local people to go to sea. “But there are very strong forces in the town that tend to get their way,” he said.

Despite issues around paperwork and bureaucracy that Brexit has thrown up and the soaring price of fuel, Brixham fish market is thriving. Just before Brexit it introduced an online auction system, allowing fish buyers from anywhere in the world to bid for catch, and it credits the change with boosting prices by 20%.

A record £43.5m of fish was sold at the market in 2021, making it the biggest by value in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and it hopes to break the £50m mark this year. On a busy day it can deal with 100 tonnes of fish, with 70% of it trucked to mainland Europe.

At this time of year the fish boxes in the market are full of a dazzling variety of fish – bass, brill, rock salmon, john dory, gurnard, megrim – while the cuttlefish season, worth £9m year, earning the catch the nickname “Brixham gold”, will begin shortly.

The fish comes from far and wide. This year a boat called Margaret of Ladram, owned by the biggest fishing company in the port, Waterdance, broke the Brixham port record with a catch that sold for £155,000. Though the vessel is based in Brixham, the fish were caught not off Devon but in the Irish Sea off the Welsh coast.

Such has been the success of the Brixham market that fishers based hundreds of miles away, from ports such as Hastings in East Sussex and Aberystwyth in mid Wales, send their catch to be sold there before it is shipped back out on lorries across Europe.

Duncan Kenny, of the Brixham conservation organisation Tide, who lives on the harbourside, said: “Already we see and hear trucks coming in day and night. It’s madness. I would rather levelling up money be put into improving healthcare, investing in schools, transport. Fishing is a huge part of our heritage but we need to do it more sustainably.”

Colin Moore, a spokesperson for Ocean Rebellion in south Devon, said the campaign group had run one demonstration against large-scale fishing in Brixham and planned others. “Levelling up money must not be used to boost industrial fishing,” he said.

Brixham Trawler Agents, which owns the market, and Waterdance declined to speak about the plans, but the local Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall said levelling up money would boost not just the fishers but the whole town. He said Waterdance was investing in new more environmentally friendly equipment such as a new beam gear called the Sumwing, designed to have less contact with the seabed.

Some critics of the scheme flag up that Brixham Trawler Agents and Waterdance each gave £2,500 to Mangnall’s 2019 general election campaign. He declared this, and he told the Guardian that he did not favour the two companies over others in the town. The bid is being led by Torbay council, which is led by Liberal Democrat and independent councillors.

Jim Funnell, a local writer who campaigns on social justice issues and has formally complained about the levelling up bid, said: “This development will benefit the most powerful people in the town. The more I question, the more questions it raises. The questions intersect with some of the biggest issues of our times – social inequality, the environmental crisis and a lack of aspiration to think beyond the simplistic, easy-to-reach option.”

Brixham town council has expressed reservations about the bid. It has supported the application but said in a statement: “Concerns were raised that the [bid] only supports one core commercial area of Brixham. Whilst Brixham is widely recognised as a large fishing port, it is also a tourist destination and a place to live.”

Torbay council pointed out that the money would support plans to grow the photonics and microelectronics industry in the area as well as the fish market and quay. It said: “These developments could bring significant benefits to Torbay. Torbay council is aware there are questions being raised regarding the environmental impacts of extending Brixham fish quay and market and will continue to consult, engage and work with key stakeholders to ensure the right scheme is delivered for the area.”

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