Boulogne: Europe’s fish hub

Boulogne: Europe’s fish hub On the Bassin Loubet quayside with Gildas Dubois who runs Boulogne’s auction

More than a fishing port, Boulogne also has a place as a hub for the French seafood industry and a gateway for seafood products passing from the producing countries to the north on their way to the seafood-hungry countries to the south.

In addition to the landings that pass over the quay, more than a quarter of a million thousand tonnes of seafood pass through Boulogne every year, with much of it processed there. Boulogne’s Capecure fishing and seafood district on both sides of the basin where the fleet ties up has long been a centre for processing, and the region also has a uniquely skilled workforce available to it.

The port has seen a great deal of investment in recent years, with more to come.

The old Comilog factory that contrasted so starkly with the fish processing and handling district around it is gone, with areas of the site already redeveloped as fish processing companies grabbed the opportunity to build new facilities, and there is more development planned.

The auction buildings that line the quay of Bassin Loubet has already seen a significant facelift, with the old quayside facilities replaced with new, designed to maintain the cold chain throughout, and the management structure has also seen changes. The running of the auction along with the fishing port have been absorbed by new company SEPD which also runs the port of Calais a few miles to the north, an apparently logical move considering both ports are owned by the region.

“It’s the same people, but different management,” explained Gildas Dubois who runs Boulogne’s auction.

The change has seen investment going into both ports now that the new management company rather than the local chambers of commerce are running the two ports – although the vital ferry and freight hub at Calais inevitably sees the lion’s share of this. Half a billion Euros are going into infrastructure at Calais, while €100 million is being spent on Boulogne.

“There’s a lot going on and there are investment plans for the port,” he said.

All the same, Boulogne’s quaysides and facilities have been through several phases of development in recent years, resulting in smart new halls and a modern auction system that has just been through an upgrade, not that everyone has been happy with that.

“We worked on this with Auxcis to install the new auction software and it is different for the users to the previous system,” he said.

“This was launched in May and a change is always difficult. Some of the buyers weren’t happy with the changes that were mad, but we didn’t have a choice about it. The new software brings in traceability aspects that are a requirement, so this had to be done. In fact, we are one of the first to put this into place.”

He commented that Boulogne is France’s number one auction by weight of landings, with 32,000 tonnes worth €81 million going under the hammer during 2017, while Lorient took the top spot last year in value terms with €82 million.

“We were down 2000 tonnes from the 34,000 tonnes we had in 2016, so we hope that we can reclaim the top place for both value and tonnage in 2018,” Gildas Dubois said.

Things have changed in recent years, not least with the demise of the deep water fishery that had been a feature of Boulogne’s fleet.

“There is still a deep water fleet, but that’s the Scapêche trawlers that land to Lorient and the fishing company here, Euronor, concentrates now on coley instead of the deep water. so all those landings of ling, grenadier and black scabbard that we used to have here are gone,” he said, commenting that changing times have made other fisheries more prominent.

“We have seen some extraordinary catches of squid over the last two years and the squid and red mullet landings have really lifted us. Sole has been down, and our main species here have been mackerel and whiting, which are both relatively low in value,” he said.

There is increasing pressure to make it possible to bring in fish, as Lorient does, for auction from outside as currently any fish sold at auction has to either come across the quay, or come through one of the port’s trawler agents.

“The wholesalers are looking at this, and it’s something that could bring in fish that we do not usually see in Boulogne. There’s no reason this fish shouldn’t be available to all buyers, and we have a growing number of remote buyers who come to the Boulogne auction for fish. As well as the local buyers here, there are buyers in Spain, Germany and the south of France who are buying in Boulogne every morning and there is certainly an interest in being able to buy fish that we do not have available now,” he said.

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