Much of Steve Norton’s 50-year career has been spent championing the seafood industry – and BQ Editor Mike Hughes finds him a fiercely loyal supporter of the whole sector as CEO of the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association.
You get an idea of how central the fishing industry is to the Humber region by looking at the launch date of the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association – 1911. The region needed one of the oldest trade associations in the country to fight its corner and provide a focussed and cohesive industry because for most of the last century the tides of change have been rising and falling around it.
The majority of members are small processors employing between 5 and 20 staff, but it is rightly proud of the fact that larger companies who supply 70% of the nation’s chilled seafood are also on board and work alongside a team of seven directors spanning both sides of the estuary.
With those companies employing 2,500 people, Steve shoulders responsibility and attracts respect in equal measure as he embraces change for the region and his sector.
“We may not get another 100 years, but I would like to think we could certainly got to 115 or 120 without any problems,” Steve tells me.
“In recognition of that forward planning, we recently set up Seafood Grimsby & Humber to represent the industry on a pan-Humber basis and enhance the performance, practices and reputation of the sustainable seafood processing industry.
“We all share a passion and desire to see that succeed, with an ultimate objective of simply encouraging more people to eat more seafood. We reckon there could be 60 species from 30 countries in the port at any one time, so it is not just about your traditional cod and haddock.”
Warnings of dwindling stocks and ‘the last cod being fished’ are swept aside, with applause from Steve for the work of the Sea Fish Industry Authority in working with the industry to make sure quotas in the North Sea are increased by good management, so that there will soon be an upturn in supplies.
Colleagues in Peterhead, north of Aberdeen, are also being contacted because new vessels being built there mean an increased catching capacity that could easily spill over to hugely experienced processors on the Humber.
“The Humber, with its critical mass of processors, is the gateway to the consumer, so it would make eminent sense to have Scottish and English fish being brought here for processing,” says Steve.
“There is a good story to be told about these British products and we should champion it more, particularly the seafood. Overall the future is pretty good and I am always optimistic, even though we must acknowledge that Grimsby does not have the catching fleet it once had, but is still a thriving centre for processing, with our whole cluster around the Humber generating around £2.5bn a year.
“We have some big names anchored here, like Youngs, Icelandic Seachill who have its fantastic Saucy Fish brand, and Morrisons, who have a processing plant in Grimsby. And we had a local firm, Quayside Distribution, being bought out by DFDS Logisitics, which is a positive sign because given the sort of company DFDS is, they wouldn’t buy a company if they didn’t think there was a future.”
That future relies, as with so many sectors, in a tailored link back to education to provide the option of a seafood career, encourage the enthusiasm and provided the right training and skills to build a direct link up to full-time work.
“The Grimsby Institute is working in partnership with industry and asking what we need in respect of training,” said Steve.
“It is not always looked on a sexy choice to go to work in the food industry, certainly not seafood, but it is not just about getting up very early to go and work in a cold, wet environment. People do that and will continue to do it, but you could be an accountant in the seafood industry or marketing or product development.
“It would be tragedy if my fifty years of knowledge, and that of so many other people in this industry, was to be lost. We want to pass our experience on to the next generation.
“A lot of fish is still converted into fillets by hand, and the age profile of those filleters is more likely to be in their forties rather than their late teens or early twenties. We have to do something about that and there are schemes we are piloting, like Traineeships which introduces 16-24 year old to the industry and give them a taster while they are still receiving benefits.
“Seafood has often been the Cinderella of the food industry, but that has changed now and the companies based here take things very seriously and have very high standards of provenance, traceability and integrity.”
With a rare, if not unique, accreditation for the fish market from the British Retail Consortium, which demands high standards of food going out to retailers, the sector is still very big business. It would be the perfect fillip for its thousands of workers if the person buying the Friday fish in the supermarket took a second to think about the crew on a fishing vessel being tossed around in storm conditions miles away from safe harbour and a landed catch.
“When that catch comes in, you see that the supply chain is quite unique. The market itself is not the supply chain in its totality, and the route there has diminished over the years,” Steve explained.
“One reason is that it is very easy for a processor to access the fish directly, just as you and I would shop on Amazon to save the time going around to look at a purchase. The Norwegians in particular are very good at marketing their cod and haddock by direct selling, and even a small company could have ten boxes delivered to its door. A few years ago that would have been a full truck or nothing.
“Of those 60 species from 30 countries some like swordfish or tuna might come in direct by air freight to a processor who will sell them on, some to the food and restaurant trade.”
With such a global demand and ever-keen business strategies, the firms at the centre of this historic trade need the support of the GFMA and Seafood Grimsby & Humber more than ever, and that often comes down to financial backing for new investments from such sources as the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, which just opened a new scheme earlier this year.
“This is crucial, and is aimed specifically at SMEs in the seafood sector, from catching right through the chain,” Steve tells me.
“It means that those SMEs can apply for funding of up to 50 per cent, either individually or potentially as a collective bid brought together by us, which could lead to a better price being negotiated at the other end.
“I’m very pleased this is now in its second phase and that its application is so much easier now. We are asking for a number of workshops to be set up as well to talk people through the process because a lot of these guys work long and hard and are very good at selling fish, but can be daunted by a 15-page document and think they can’t be bothered. But they need to be bothered because the money is there for them.”
This year will also see the return of the Humber Seafood Summit in September, after a gap in 2015 to allow for the World Seafood Congress. The summit is now a fixture in the fisheries calendar and will again bring a key focus to the area and visitors from international companies.
The range of the sector will be a key factor in its future direction, stretching from the household names like Youngs right down to craftsmen like Richard Enderby, whose smoked fish has been awarded the coveted PGI – the Protected Geographic Indication found with Stilton cheese, Parma ham, Champagne and Melton Mowbray pies.
“It recognises that traditionally smoked Grimsby cod and haddock uses a process that cannot be replicated outside the areas where it is produced,” said Steve.
“It took the best part of 12 years to get through the bureaucratic treacle of the EU, but it did and people like Richard and these very old smokehouses dotted around the port are now protected, and are rightly prized by chefs like Rick Stein.
“It is a fantastic accolade for our seafood industry and one that I think we should be promoting again and again and pressing for export so that a Grimsby product can be found in the top class restaurants of the Middle East.
“The fact that fish and seafood is so high on the agenda in terms of celebrity chefs and health benefits can really add to the feelgood factor across the region. A lot of business now see the bigger agenda and the advantages and are working towards them, along with local authorities doing their bit to engage and improve community spirit.
“Grimsby has a loyal, hardworking and dedicated workforce, but it is at the end of the A180, a very long cul-de-sac. That said, it has some wonderful assets and attributes like the port of Immingham, which handles one of the highest tonnages in the UK, and Humberside International Airport providing a very good hub into Schiphol and then onwards.
“There are good schools and we are surrounded by great countryside and I think people don't always look at the advantages of living in a place like this. I will do whatever I can to encourage inward investment and see what we can do to encourage the smaller companies operating in niche artisanal areas.”
I’m tempted to finish with some fishing puns, but it is a better use of words to simply say instead that Steve Norton’s work is not far short of heroic. He might as well be the man at the wheel on one of those storm-battered trawlers, unafraid of anything that might be thrown at him, always knowing where the port is.
His fifty years of service to a traditional and historic sector shines like a beacon guiding his ships home, and if the region could distil such loyalty businesses on both sides of the Humber would be better off.