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Whelks caught in crossfire of Korean peninsula tensions

By KentOnline reporter

Heightened tensions in the Korean peninsula could hit the whelk industry in Whitstable, say local fishermen.

There are seven boats working out of Whitstable harbour and their trade is almost entirely reliant on the overseas trade.

A total of 95% of their produce is shipped abroad with the market to making up 50% of this, sold through agencies.

Video: How Kent's whelk industry is affected by the Korean peninsula tensions

But the industry is being heavily affected by the current political climate with tensions running high due to an ongoing war of words between the USA and North Korea.

President Trump said on Tuesday his country was willing to inflict “devastating” military action if necessary while Pyongyang accused the White House of a declaration of war.

Kim Jong-un’s oppressive regime has been antagonising the international community by launching missiles over Japan and is raising concern with its alleged nuclear programme.

The tensions have a direct effect on UK trade as it affects buyer-confidence.

Owner at West Whelks, Graham West, said: “People in the trade are reluctant to buy in case they lose their investment – we are taking orders only from those we know who will buy.

“At this time of year prices are high – it is the first time in five years they have remained the same.

Fishermen sort out whelks
Fishermen sort out whelks

“At the moment people are worried – whelks are our main business – anything else sold, such as lobster, are a bonus.”

While its heyday in the UK has past, whelks are still popular in Korea where they are often eaten as a side dish with beer.

Mr West, whose family has been at the helm of the company for 150 years, is reluctant to stock up in case prices crash overnight, which could prove catastrophic for his business.

Whitstable fishermen are affiliated to Thanet Fishermen’s Association, which looks after 50 vessels along the north Kent coast.

Its chairman, retired fisherman John Nichols, said: “Whelks are dependent on the export
market alone.

John Nichols, chairman of Thanet Fisherman's Assocation
John Nichols, chairman of Thanet Fisherman's Assocation

“The local market around the UK used to have thriving stalls on the seafront, but they do not exist any more.

“Prices for the export market have been as high as £1,200 per tonne and if the Korean market were to collapse in any shape or form then that would come down to as low as £400 which would not make it viable.

“The whelk industry is labour intensive – it’s heavy work.

“One of the biggest costs is the baiting of the pots and fuel and if you are not getting a return then it is simply not worth it.”

The sector is monopolised by large companies which control 93% of the quotas – the small sector, which includes the north Kent coast fleet, has the rest.

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