COLUMN | Fish auctions: an ancient solution for modern times [Fishing for a Living]

A fish auction on the beach at Chennai, India

Commercial fishing is an industry rooted in tradition. The Fish Mammas of Ghana are honoured for the generations that they have acted as the rightful middlemen between the canoe borne fishermen and the public or retail markets. In Chennai, India, graceful rafts bring catches ashore from anchored boats. Designated woman standing at the water’s edge to conduct lively auctions meets the rafts.

The fish auction is a time honoured institution in many countries. In European nations, from Scotland to Portugal they serve to separate the fisherman from the processor or consumer. This severely limits the danger of vertically integrated corporations taking control of a fishery and, over time, reducing the importance of the fisherman in the equation.

Portugal is a particularly brilliant example of the success of the auction. The port of Peniche, about 50 kilometres north of Lisbon, has a well-maintained fishing port that is equal or better than any in the world. There is ample mooring, gear storage and work spaces as well as public and private cold storage facilities. The port’s centrepiece is the auction dock and hall. Managed by Docapesca, the auction is one of the largest of the 22 managed by this group in Portugal.

Importantly, and unlike most areas of the world, all near-shore fresh catches must pass through the auction in boxed lots. This results in a remarkable management tool. The auction, limited to registered buyers, excluded brokers. Brokers, who add a percentage to the price of fish between the fisherman and the retailer or processor, are not allowed.

The auction hall at Peniche Portugal with boxed fish on the conveyor belt

Thai Union, one of the world’s largest fish processors, operates a sardine cannery in Peniche. Its buyer explained that they supply the factory with sardines from as far away as Iceland and Morocco. He also explained that he or another company representative also buy at the Peniche auction. They can bid on small lots and then take multiple lots at that bid-price.

They will be bidding, on an equal footing, with a young woman and her grandmother. These two entrepreneurs own a small Toyota truck with a spotless reefer mounted on the back. The two women explained that they come to the auction every day and buy small lots of several species of fish. They then deliver these to a dozen different restaurants to whom they are regular suppliers.

So, when a boxed lot of fish comes along the conveyor, the buyer for the large factory and the small restaurant suppliers are bidding on an equal footing, The fisherman who has just delivered the fish is guaranteed to receive the best available market price.

As the fish, in box lots prepared by the fishermen, come along the conveyor, the auction, on a screen display showing weight, species, and other data relevant to a bidder is displayed on an overhead screen. Bidders, who have earlier had an opportunity to examine the fish up-close, sit in bleachers and with hand held remotes, similar to a TV remote, wait for the screen to scroll down to their desired price and then click their acceptance.

Having purchased one box at the desired price the auctioneer them offers any additional boxes at that price. If there are no takers the price is allowed to scroll on down until another bidder signals acceptance of the price.

The fisherman is paid for his catch immediately after that auction. There is a two per cent deduction that is used to fund, not only the auction, but also the port infrastructure. The storage and net sheds, piers and moorage facilities far exceed those of many countries and would be the envy of the increasingly dilapidated equivalents in Canada.

The screen at Peniche displaying the vessel name, species, weight and bid price

While survival in the fishing industry is no easy task in Portugal and prices continue to barely support coasts, the transparency of the auction system gives security to the fisherman. Perhaps even more importantly for the Portuguese nation and its people, the harvesting of common property fish supports a wide range of entrepreneurial opportunities. A young woman with a little reefer truck can develop a fish mongering business with the potential to grow. A large corporate canning company can access supply at competitive prices. The system is self-sustaining and supplies quality seafood to the popular seafood restaurants that attract tourists,

A young Scottish fisherman visiting Canada spelled out the contrast with his home country to me. When I asked him to contrast what he had seen on a Canadian trawler with what he saw on the Scottish vessel that he crewed, he pointed to the Canadian quota system. To paraphrase, he said, “At home we sort the fish into boxes onboard. This is to get them ready for auction. In Canada, the processors already own the fish so they are just dumped into the fish hold. There is no sorting and the quality of the product is lower.”

Some years ago a group of independent Canadian fishermen attempted to arrange a dockside auction. It never came about and some blamed a lack of support by corporate quota holders. For crews working on corporate-owned boats, fishing corporate-owned quota, there is growing uncertainty. In the past, fuel and grub were the standard deductions prior to calculating crew shares. Now a quota lease fee is often deducted by the processor-owner of the quota. Old fishermen lament the days when a crew job could buy a house or car or even pay one through university. The average age of crew continues to climb.

Would an auction solve all the fisheries problems of the world? Certainly not, but in countries that mandate an auction system, from India to Portugal, the system provides fishermen with a transparency that is rapidly disappearing from many nations.

Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.