This isn’t a sight the public often gets to see, but as part of Shetland Food Festival a group of us are being given a tour of Shetland Seafood Auction’s fish market, and the chance to watch the catch being sold at electronic auction.
We walk through the narrow spaces between box after box of fish, admiring what the Defiant, the Fairway, the Guardian Angell, the Ocean Way and the Sharyn Louise have harvested from the deep.
There’s an incredible range of species: Gleaming great ugly monkfish with big fat tails; mournful-eyed gurnards; leopard-skinned skate; haddock; whiting; cod; plaice; ling; hake; tusk. And you don’t need to be an expert to see that the quality of all of them is stunning.
It’s freezing cold. The fish are gutted and packed in ice on the boats, but they are kept chilled here in the market, and more ice is added to the boxes in order to maintain their freshness. Very early this morning 10 boats from the Shetland fleet offloaded a total of 800 boxes of white fish in Lerwick and 300 in Scalloway.
“The site is laid out in the perfect order,” says auction manager Martin Leyland, who is acting as our guide. “The fish arrive on the sea side, they pass through the market and they come out on the land side to be transported to wherever they are going next.”
The journey from ocean to consumer is a process that starts well before the fish are ashore. Up to 18 hours before they reach harbour the boats can tell Shetland Seafood Auctions, via the internet, what species they have caught and how many boxes they have filled with each.
The order of landings is then managed in such a way as to optimize prices, and it’s decided where all the catches will be laid out in the market. The information is also sent to buyers so they can plan their purchases. Many of the buyers act as agents for different companies and have specific requirements to fulfil. They recognise the names of the boats and can anticipate the quality of their hauls.
Once on shore the fish are weighed and graded according to size. “We had a team of six men working till 11pm last night,” says Martin, “and they started again at six this morning.”
The auctioneers go around too and note what is on offer, then the buyers get the catalogue and look at the catches. All buyers have to put in place financial guarantees, and must pay for what they’ve bought within two to three weeks, so the stakes are high. “You stand or fall on your knowledge of fish,” says Martin.
Electronic auctions have been taking place in Shetland since 2003. The software that is employed was invented by a Belgian company and first used for selling flowers. This morning there are around 10 bidders, which is the usual number.
There’s a quiet drama to the proceedings. By 11am the buyers will have parted with something in the region of £100,000. By 11.30am the market will be empty.
It’s a Dutch auction, which means that a price higher than the seller expects to get is set for each box. The market at Peterhead starts an hour earlier than here, so by the time the Shetland auction begins everyone has an idea of the going rates for the day.
As each lot comes up the lights on the dial of a large electronic clock, rather like the ones you see on game shows, flash consecutively. The price of the lot falls by £10 for each circuit of the dial. When it reaches the amount a buyer is willing to pay, he can press a button and make a purchase.
The dial stops and the name of the buyer and the price they have paid appears on the clock face. To the right and left of the clock are boards showing the number of the lot being sold, the breed of fish, the weight, and the rate the fish are going at per kilo.
Once bought, the boxes are ticketed and quickly loaded into refrigerated containers. The speed of the process means they can be on the ferry the same day and landed in Aberdeen next morning.
“You’d be amazed at where they go from there,” says Martin. “Before we had the electronic auction system prices were better in Peterhead, but now Shetland is a popular port for landing white fish.
“For the last two years our prices have been higher than Peterhead’s. The crisis during the 1990s saw landings go down and decommissioning. Current landings are up to 1989 levels, and we’ve got as far as we can for the moment in terms of growth. What happens next depends on the politicians.”