A Summer in Polperro

I spent my summer holidays in an old fishermen’s cottage overlooking Polperro harbour down in Cornwall.


I spent my summer holidays in an old fishermen’s cottage overlooking Polperro harbour down in Cornwall. The old fisherman has long since gone, and so has much of the fishing industry upon which Polperro’s wealth was based. There are still a few boats plying their trade but today the harbour is home to more pleasure vessels than fishing vessels, a site repeated the length and breadth of the land.

Polperro owes much to a single fish - the pilchard. Back in the 1750s Cornish fishermen were bringing ashore in excess of 900 million pilchards a year. Described as, ‘a very beautiful fish to look at. Not very large, being something less than the size of a herring, silvery bright with a tinge of pink here and there upon its scales, it has large lustrous gold and black eyes; and not only beautiful to view but delicious savoury to the taste when eaten fresh.’

In fact few pilchards were ever eaten fresh. Most were preserved in salt and exported to the continent; to Italy in fact. Such was the importance of the fish to the Italian market that a gentleman by the name of Roberto Teglio from Genoa established his own pilchard processing plant in the town (it is now home to the Polperro Museum). Pilchards were particularly important during Lent, during which the Catholic church forbade the eating of meat, giving rise to a verse popular in the town:

Here’s health to the Pope,

And may he repent,

And lengthen by six months

The term of Lent.

It’s always declared

Betwixt the two poles,

There’s nothing like pilchards

For saving of souls

Tinned salmon and tinned tuna were to be the downfall of the Cornish salted pilchard industry, an end precipitated by refrigeration and changing consumer tastes. In 2005 only 1200 boxes of pilchards were packed in the last surviving Cornish pilchard processor, down from 8000 boxes only a decade earlier. The last Cornish pilchard processor closed its doors in 2006.

Interestingly, the fishery is seeing something of a comeback, thanks in no small way to a little re-branding. Since the pilchard is basically a big sardine, Waitrose christened it the Cornish Sardine Pilchards and saw sales rise by 19%. Following suite, Tesco saw its sale of Cornish sardines rocket by 180%. In 2006, the Cornish Sardine was granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the EU.

The story of the Cornish pilchard is a salutary reminder that whilst we are very much a fishing nation, we are not a nation of fish consumers. In the year 2013 the fishing fleets of the UK landed 624 thousand tonnes of fish and shellfish with a value of £718 million. The same year according to the Marine Management Organisation, we ate only 480 thousand tonnes. The principal markets for our fish lie beyond our shores - France, Spain and Italy. As the fishing industry celebrates its independence from EU regulation, there remain a number of questions regarding our future trade relationship with the member states of the EU.

Last year the UK exported 492 thousand tonnes of fish and shellfish, around 70% of this to the EU. It exported less than 5,000 tonnes to third countries with which the EU has a free trade agreement (mostly South Korea). If the UK remains within the single market, (a hot topic since the EU has declared this can only be achieved if freedom of movement continues) then little will materially change.  However, if the UK steps outside the single market then, in the absence of a trade deal, all exports will be governed by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Outwith the EU, the UK will be able to negotiate its own free trade agreements on a bilateral basis (a prospect more straightforward than the current challenge of corralling a common negotiating position from 28 EU member states).  A free trade agreement with India for example, a major consumer of fish, could bring great rewards. Ditto an agreement with Japan or China.

The future is not yet written. The negotiations will be tough. However, there is little doubt that we catch the fish Europeans want to eat, whether it be pilchard or plaice, haddock or hake, megrim or monk, and that is a powerful bargaining tool.