The Sharp End: The men in white coats

Marine officer Dave Waller dons his wellies for a visit to Brixham fish market.

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

I'm in Brixham in Devon spending the day as a marine officer. These are the sheriffs of the seas, out to inspect the trawlers' catches to see if anything fishy's going on.

My host is Beshlie Pool, who explains that the team aren't allowed to live in Brixham - it doesn't make for comfy pub chat of a Friday night if you're dragging your neighbour through the courts for cheating the quotas.

So, while work starts at 5.30am, we have to be up at 4.15. This involves suckering me in with the smell of coffee, then slipping a serrated hook into my gob and wrenching me skywards as the sun warms the windows of Brixham's sleepy cottages.

When we arrive at the Marine Management Organisation's harbourside Portakabin, boss Nick Wright kits us out in wellies and white coats ready for our first job: the fish market inspection.

We're soon in a huge freezer, surrounded by dead fish. Small shoals of leathery-faced blokes move about in wellies and hats, as entranced by the trays of iced monkfish tails and sole as I am put off by the whiff. 'Cute, aren't they,' says Beshlie, as she waves a red gurnard in my face.

These guys are the buyers and they're on the phone to their clients letting them know what's come in. Brixham is the highest-earning fishing port in the country and is renowned for the quality of its catch. The finest fish can fetch £15 a kilo. Sixty percent of the non-sole catch goes abroad; Brixham's cuttlefish, for example, all go to Italy.

I ask Nick whether buying fish is a full-time job. Isn't it just a matter of chipping up at 5am and mulling the odd cod? 'Absolutely not,' he says. 'It's very skilled.' The trick is to bid high enough to win the fish but still be able to shift it, otherwise you're stuck with a couple of tons of the stuff. That's around £30,000-worth.

The marine officers' job is to inspect paperwork - the fish have to match up with the log papers posted by the fishermen. One load of cod seems suspiciously over quota and even more fishily no one seems to know where it came from or who it belongs to. Anyone attempting to land and sell an illegal catch faces a fine of up to £50,000.

Beshlie urges me to pick up a smoothhound, a kind of shark. A stream of gunk seeps out of a hole onto my shoe. Dogfish lie stacked in crates, many of them straining out of the side, mouths up, gasping, frozen in their death throes like explorers preserved under Arctic ice.

Soon Beshlie's digging her hand under a cod's gill to check for freshness and describing the parasites. 'I have a grim fascination with it,' she says. She adds that I've got off lightly. 'I was measuring plaice the other day and wound up with a load of fish semen in my eye. It's brutal.' Please. Not before eight o'clock.

The emissions of the begilled aren't the only uncomfortable side to the job, which brings in around £22,000 a year. Relations between the hardy fishermen and the landlubber box-tickers can be somewhat frosty. 'I've worked on this quay 18 years,' Nick says, 'and some of these guys have barely exchanged a word with me.'

Beshlie, however, has her people skills down to a fine art, happily chewing the fat with even the saltiest of the old seadogs. A stocky, grey-haired bloke comes over for a chat. I spy a charity calendar to my right: he's Mr June, nude save for a life belt.

Time for a mid-morning coffee. At 8am. We sit in the Portakabin reading the Herald Express until the trawler Danielle appears after a few days at sea. Turns out her paperwork hasn't been done for ages, so we kit up for an inspection.

We clamber aboard and are ushered down a ladder into the depths of the ship's cold store, surrounded by sacks of scallops. It's bloody cold. We test the catch to ensure they meet the size standards. They do. And, aside from one joke about nipples, it's all very courteous.

We're done by 1.30pm, but this is a job that stays with you: Beshlie says she can still taste the remnants of that smoothhound through her nose; and while I can expect a long sleep later, I fear it may be haunted by closing hatches, seeping piscine corpses and fishermen in the buff.

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