finance

From the docks to the eBay – will online marketplaces save the fishing industry?


On a bracing January morning in Hastings, the British fishing industry feels becalmed. Just weeks after Brexit, exporters are ensnared in red tape, newspapers are full of doom about fish rotting in warehouses, and lorries are being held in two-day queues. Here on the south coast, Covid restrictions have closed most of the shacks that normally dole out oysters, dressed crab, potted shrimp and other local delights. None of the 20 or so boats that make up the Hastings inshore fleet have gone out, either, for a more old-fashioned reason: the weather. It’s rare they are able to fish on more than 150 days of the year, and today is not one of them. There’s a persistent icy drizzle, and a grey sea tumbles chaotically onto the beach.

Despite the unpromising conditions, Ben King is trying to see the upside. For the past three years, the start-up he co-founded with Aiden Berry, Pesky Fish, has been working to connect fishermen directly with wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and home chefs, cutting out traditional middlemen. Using Pesky’s online marketplace, a kind of piscine eBay, customers can buy fish from Britain’s inshore fleet as soon as it’s landed, and get it delivered anywhere in the country the next day. Some are offered with a “buy it now” price, algorithmically generated; the rest is sold by auction. The promise is alluring: better value for the customer, the freshest fish going and a higher price for the fishermen. Pesky Fish sells more than two tonnes of fish per day from Britain’s day boats and artisanal fish farmers.

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“People will paint a dour narrative of the industry, but in a longer-term view, the past couple of months have been amazing,” King says. “We’ve had the opportunity to speak to fishermen and buyers, and ask them what they would want their market experience to be, in an ideal world. We’re at an inflection point. The industry is not going to regress.”

Ben King, co-founder of Pesky Fish
Ben King, co-founder of Pesky Fish. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

Pesky has come a long way. “I originally wanted to do the seafood version of Flatiron,” says King, alluding to the group of low-cost, high-quality steak restaurants. “It would be financially accessible and also provide a traceability narrative, so you could tell where your fish had come from. It was predicated on my naivety. Slowly I realised that we couldn’t do it in seafood because there wasn’t real traceability in the supply chain. The quality was all over the shop.” He kept asking himself questions. “Why is the fish we eat 2-3 weeks old? Why has it had to pass through four or five pairs of hands to get to my plate? Why is 80% of it imported? It didn’t make sense and it became an itch that never went away.”

After delivering its first fish in November 2017, a turbot for Shaun Rankin at Ormer Mayfair in London, Pesky grew quickly, raising money through venture capital and spending time with Techstars, a company that helps start-ups by offering connections and expertise in exchange for equity. Its reputation among chefs spread by word of mouth and an attractive Instagram presence, full of gleaming sides of salmon and grizzled men holding bass. One early adopter was Jeremy Chan, the chef-owner of Ikoyi, the Michelin-starred restaurant in London’s Piccadilly.

“It was a different product altogether,” says Chan. “The fish was basically still alive. It started to change our way of working with fish. We became more spontaneous and adaptable, and let them dictate what fish we would put on our menu based on availability. I’d get a call saying: ‘I’ve got a 6kg turbot, do you want it?’ It would be in the restaurant the next evening.” Part of the challenge, he adds, is letting customers know about the quality of what we have on our doorstep: “Britain is a Neanderthal food culture,” he says, “but a bountiful island for seafood and wildlife.”

A native British lobster
A native British lobster. Photograph: Clare Kinchin

After starting with individual boats, Pesky has expanded to work with whole ports, Hastings being the most recent addition. At first Berry and King focused on restaurants and wholesalers, but when Covid-19 struck they set up a direct home delivery service, taking advantage of the surge in interest that saw independent food shops’ sales rise more than 63% in the months after lockdown. On the main marketplace, fish is sold in minimum 10kg crates, but the home delivery market allows customers to buy individual fish off the day boats, as well as high-end farmed products, such as mussels from the River Teign, or Wester Ross salmon, smoked with heather honey by Iain Boyd in Ullapool. King says only around half their business is in London, and they’re having as much success outside big cities, where fishmongers have closed and supermarkets might have shut their fish counters.

“We were looking for a fish supplier for ages, then we read about Pesky in the Observer [in last year’s OFM50, our annual guide to new people, places and trends],” says Stefano Cuomo, who runs the Macknade artisan food halls in Kent. “We like our produce to have that direct relationship with the community, so customers could engage with the produce and understand it. You can do that online, but really it happens over the counter. We don’t stock tuna or cod, we stock sole and mackerel and cuttlefish, and we can tell customers exactly where it has come from and how to cook it.”

The sunlit uplands where British consumers start buying, eating and appreciating their own seafood is simpler in theory than in practice. Pesky is cheaper than most fishmongers, but more expensive than supermarkets. Forty years of integration into the EU means our fish is locked into a labyrinth of regulations, trade agreements and processing systems that will take years to reverse.

One gripe from people in the industry is that British fish is more prized on the continent, or even further afield in east Asia or the US, than it is here. Dover sole, crab and lobster are exported to restaurants in Europe, while our cheaper fish is sent to Germany, turned into fish fingers, and reimported. Partly it’s tradition. French restaurants will happily sell four small Dover soles as a dish, while the British customer expects one large fillet. It’s also about tastes. If an agent doesn’t think he can sell a fish to merchants, he won’t buy it off the fishermen. By cutting out intermediary layers, Pesky is helping revive unfashionable options. “Take pouting,” says King. “It used to be a bycatch, but now places like Smoking Goat are using it where they might have used cod. It’s cheaper for the customer, and the overall catch is more valuable.”

Fishermen Paul Joy and Mark Ball
Fishermen Paul Joy and Mark Ball. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

Changing customer habits will take time. For now, everyone must contend with Brexit and Covid. “It’s a double sucker-punch,” says Paul Joy, who has been fishing these waters for more than 42 years, and now runs the Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society from a small office overlooking the beach. A few days before we meet, fishermen protested in Parliament Square against the Brexit agreement, which they feel has betrayed them. Fishing rights were one of the sticking points in the months leading up to the December deadline. Joy and Mark Ball, like most of the industry, were strongly in favour of Brexit, which they hoped might address long-held grievances. Both men started fishing before the UK joined the EU and remember an era before quotas and overfishing and Belgian super-trawlers running up alongside their little boats. “I started when I left school,” says Ball, “and by the time I was 20 I had my own boat. You could make a living. You couldn’t do that today.”

Joy agrees. “Before we joined the EU, my family had been fishing here sustainably for 1,000 years,” he says. With the Brexit deal fishermen have ended up with the worst of all worlds. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been. At least with a no deal we’d have had our 12-mile rights. At the moment, we’ve lost everything.”

Hastings signed up to Pesky after a venture to run their own wholesaling failed. The Pesky pitch, offering daybook fishermen better prices for their fish and better value to the consumer, was persuasive. They say there have been times when a fisherman would get 20p for a kilogram of lemon sole. Pesky sells them for £4.99 a fish. At some high-end fish shops, a single 500g fish can sell for £14, excluding delivery. “Lots of companies have come and gone, especially the ones that relied on export,” Joy says. “That’s why we were excited to see Pesky come in. They’re looking more at local markets and local consumers. We’ve got to get away from exporting everything we catch.”

“We’ve always been non-political,” King says. “We have to create the best opportunities we can, regardless of the situation. We want to make the distribution of value fairer, and push as much value back to the boats who put in such a ridiculous amount of effort.”

Freshly caught Sprats
Freshly caught Sprats Photograph: Clare Kinchin Photography

Towards the end of last year there was an awful reminder of just how much is at stake for these men and handful of women. In the early hours of November 21 the Joanna C, a 45-foot Brixham scalloper and one of Pesky’s suppliers, sank off the East Sussex coast. The crewmen Robert Morley and Adam Harper drowned; the skipper, Dave Bickerstaff, was rescued after clinging to a buoy, having escaped from underneath the capsized boat and stayed next to Robert in the water for several hours. Morley’s mother, Jackie Woolford, said: “My Robert wasn’t alone when he died. His skipper stayed with him all the time.”

“It was a stark reminder that British consumers don’t have any exposure to the risks that come with fishing,” King says. “Nothing can be said or done to make up the loss to those families. But I felt it brought people closer together. It’s why we want to keep promoting the industry and exposing people to the challenges that come with it. If we can make a good thing come of it, that’s the best thing we can do for the fishermen we lost.”

The dream of making fishing more efficient has been around for decades. From Marseille to Kerala, there have been experiments and studies in reforming the industry. Although Pesky is the leading British start-up in its field, fishing and aquaculture are attracting attention from entrepreneurs around the world. Sea to Table and Dock to Dish are comparable businesses in the US, while Blue Lobster is doing something similar in Denmark. For the most part, however, start-ups have focused on streamlining the middle sections of the market, rather than the whole ocean-to-plate journey.

Fishing has, so far, proved resistant to change, and is still conducted more or less as it was 100 years ago. Fishermen land their catch, where it is collected by a merchant who sells it on to a wholesaler and then on to individual retailers before it gets to the customer. By the time you’re squeezing a lemon over your bass, it could have been through six or seven hands, each of whom has taken a cut. There is often a complex web of personal loyalties. A chef has often worked with his supplier for years, and the supplier in turn knows to hold back the best fish for the long-term client. Pesky’s supply is necessarily limited by what the boats can catch. It’s great if you’re open-minded about which fish you want, like Chan, but less so if you know you need 200 halibut for Friday night.

In a world where everyone has a smartphone, the justification for a byzantine system of middlemen, with layers of bureaucracy between ocean and dinner table, looks increasingly thin. While Paul Joy and Mark Ball hope Pesky can provide better prices for their catch, as well as an effective domestic marketing operation, there is no magic bullet. Pesky is subject to the market like everyone else. It hasn’t dented their ambition.

The Kayleigh Ann leaving Brixham Harbour
The Kayleigh Ann leaving Brixham harbour. Photograph: Clare Kinchin Photography

“The tagline, although I hate that word, is ‘feed the world sustainably with seafood’,” says King. Fish proving difficult to sell to Europe could be exported further afield. Chalk Stream Trout, a Pesky supplier championed by Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi, has noticed a rise in sales to the US. If the Pesky system works in the UK, it might also work elsewhere. Its next venture might be to reform tuna markets in Sri Lanka, for example, rather than taking on another British port. By building up a bank of data, King hopes Pesky will one day become a kind of “Bloomberg of fish”, a resource for administrators and officials as well as people wondering what to have for dinner.

“Industries evolve on top of themselves, rather than thinking, how would we do it if we were to start again?” he says. “That’s what we have to do: not make incremental benefits of 10% here or there, but ask ourselves how to make it 10 times better. Because that will make it more sustainable in the long run.” Between technology, sustainability, politics and dinner, almost everything has something to do with the price of those annoying fish.





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