At 4:30 this morning I awoke to go to Glasgow’s fish market (with my Food Culture and Agriculture classmate, Kate). Fish markets are filled with bustling stalls of people, fishermen hauling in the morning’s catch straight from the sea, vendors shouting out the stock of the day—trying to get the best prices for whole fish, fishmongers wandering about trying to talk prices down between one vendor or another, everybody moving here and there to get fish as fresh as possible out in shop windows by the time people are standing in line to buy this evening’s dinner!
Or, that’s what it was like 25 years ago. This morning, as we walked into a nearly silent building, we saw a dozen or so men quietly moving Styrofoam containers filled with already filleted fish and ice into vans. Most buyers place orders electronically the night before for delivery the following morning. There were once 50 or 60 independent fishmongers in Glasgow; only a few remain today. “People don’t want to mess with fish” said one vendor, “they’d rather buy something pre-packaged and vacuum sealed from the supermarket.” The supermarkets, because of their size, bypass the fish-market altogether and buy fish at auction. This has greatly diminished the wholesale trade. “We used to have forty wholesalers here twenty years ago, now, well, look around there are only about eight of us left on the floor.”
There didn’t seem to be much on at all this morning. Everyone seemed eager to speak with us; it was as if the men lacked human contact. “It’s exciting to see a new face now and again” quipped one vendor. “It used to be filled with people, lively, you’d see your regulars; sometimes a fight to cheer things up.” One can just walk in and purchase fish directly from the vendor; but, apart from a couple Chinese fellows picking up lobster, there were few people browsing about. (The lobster were flown in from Canada! It’s apparently difficult to fish North Sea lobster in winter, but the market demand for off-season lobster is great enough to transport them by air.)
The facility has become less of a market in the traditional sense and more of a transport depot (indeed, it’s not a place one would readily walk to or stop in, it’s “outside” the realm of everyday city life just off the M8 highway). One vendor said, when he started years ago, his firm had one van for delivery. Now they run ten. It seemed more of a building for moving white boxes back and forth than a place where life and food connect. This came through in the stories of several men; “It’s soul destroying” said one. It didn’t sound like there was much draw to working in this business; where once one was part of the everyday flow of life, now there are crates and the back end of vans.
One man pulled out a (beautiful) fillet of haddock; “You know how to tell haddock, do you? Look, here the sides, see these dark patches? They’re called ‘Peter’s Prints.’ You know, from the Bible, Peter the fisherman.” The patches are on either side—marking where a human hand might hold the fish. We are losing this connection; the fish has become something distant, something we want canned or sealed and ready to serve. I head the sound of lobster claws against a Styrofoam crate; we’ve closed life and death away in insulated boxes and shipped it round the world.