At the Lerwick fish market, the ground floor of a large dockside warehouse is almost covered with yellow boxes, piled on top of each other, and filled with the day’s white fish catch. It’s so chilly that you can see your breath while noting the differences of character between the fish: the dainty, bug-eyed whiting; the plaice, with their squished, comically cantankerous faces; the flat-headed, sharp-toothed, hideously ugly monkfish.
Upstairs, in a little room, twelve or so men are sitting in rows, as if in a classroom, staring at what look like a series of old-fashioned scoreboards. They’re local wholesale fish buyers, and they’re bidding via an electronic Dutch auction for their share of the yellow boxes downstairs. In those boxes are 50 or so tonnes of white fish, which have been dropped off by the local fleet of boats, many of whose names sound like team names on The Apprentice: Aspire, Opportune, Defiant, Prolific.
Unlike traditional auctions, the price goes down rather than up in a Dutch auction, with a circular board in the middle showing the price lowering until someone presses a button to land the box, which will then be shipped across the UK and into Europe. It’s done fast, and largely in silence.
The price the wholesalers will stop at depends on the quantity of the catch, and other factors like bad weather or bank holidays, which increase the chances of the fish being held up in transit. Rarer catches are more expensive, so a box of halibut might cost £9 per kilo, while a box of pollock will be barely cost 60p a kilo. The wholesalers will know the level of demand from clients across the country, whether that be Scottish fish and chip shops or Billingsgate market in London. As one of the wholesalers explains, “It’s all pretty classic supply and demand”.
One of only two such auctions in the UK, the auction that happens every morning of the week is a good indicator of the size of Shetland’s fishing industry. In 2016, Shetland landed 72,000 tonnes of fish, worth £79 million – more than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. That figure is expected to have risen since, and the construction of a new £7.6 million white fish market signals confidence in the health of Shetland fishing.
Our guide to all of this is James Aitken, who works in operations for a company called LHD, who help run the auction, as well as providing management services for Shetland’s many fishing boats, including close to 30 white fish boats and seven pelagic trawlers, huge state-of-the-art ships that trawl for fish like herring, mackerel and blue whiting. LHD manage the ships’ finances, including paying the crew and sorting their taxes, and will make sure that ships go out properly fuelled, iced and with their nets in good order.
Times are good, for James and the industry. “I’ve been working here for three years now, and it’s just got busier and busier every year,” says James, taking a break by the Lerwick harbour, as three large seals take great interest in us, in the hope of being tossed a fish or two. “There’s been a lot of fish landed, the numbers have been steadily increasing, and with the new fish market, it’s only going to get bigger.”
James is Lerwick born and bred. He went to the local Bell’s Brae Primary School and then the Anderson High School, which had a modern £55.75 million makeover in 2017, relocating to a new state-of-the-art building and halls of residence, with access to the sports facilities, pool and running track at the neighbouring Clickimin centre. For as long as he can remember, he’s played football, joining the Lerwick Rangers football team, which – rather incongruously – morphs into Lerwick Celtic when the under-18s become a senior team. James has played all the way through, including the years he studied accountancy and finance at Glasgow University, and is now a star midfielder for both Lerwick Celtic and the Shetland team.
While Lerwick Celtic have struggled since winning the eight-strong Ocean Kinetics Premier League in 2015, James was their player of the year and top scorer last season, popping up with 23 goals, mostly from central midfield. For the Shetland team, the bi-annual highlight is playing against the likes of the Falklands, Greenland and the Isle of Man in the Island Games, a kind of Olympics for small islands, from the Falkland Islands to Gotland in Sweden. The Shetland team famously won the competition in 2005, beating Guernsey 2-0 in a final on home turf. Other than that, the big match is the summer game against Orkney, the islands to the southwest that have an almost identical population to Shetland.
Life sounds busy away from football, too. As well as admitting to enjoying a night out in Lerwick, James plays hockey, volleyball and golf, on one of Shetland’s two 18-hole courses, just outside Lerwick and on the island of Whalsay. Not long before we meet at the fish market, his family had hosted the the award-winning Welsh revivalist folk band Calan at their Lerwick home for the Shetland Folk Festival. “They were blown away by the place,” he says. “I think they were really surprised, and they said it was one of their favourite places they’ve ever toured.”
A lot of people have misconceptions about Shetland, he says. “People think we sit in our houses and drink cups of tea and knit Fair Isle jumpers,” says James. “So many people at uni would ask me: Is there working internet? But, actually, there’s loads going on, from the gigs and other events at [Lerwick cultural space] Mareel to the galas and festivals in the summer. And the sporting facilities are brilliant: where we train and play football, there’s a brand new gym, and a brand new indoor training facility. It’s brilliant.”
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