How Trump Is Threatening Kent’s Sea Snail Business

South Korea is one of the largest importers of whelks, an edible sea snail native to the British coastline. But with Trump’s military threats exacerbating tensions on the peninsula, orders are down.

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19 October 2017, 1:49pm

Donald Trump, as far as I know, has never been to the charming fishing town of Whitstable in Kent. He doesn't drink, so he won't have had a pint in local Michelin-starred pub The Sportsman and he eats Big Macs and well-done steaks, so he almost certainly hasn't gorged on native oysters on the seafront, his wispy yellow hair blowing in the coastal breeze.

Despite all this, the President could soon have a devastating effect on Whitstable. Or, rather, on one of its most lucrative industries. For decades, people have fished for whelks, a type of sea snail, off the Kent coast here. Sales of the shellfish have declined in Britain, meaning that Whitstable's whelkers now mainly sell to South East Asia. One of their largest buyers is South Korea, who in turn supply the North.

Which is where Trump comes in. His brazen, nuke-inducing rhetoric combined with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's manic dictatorship is doing little to dispel rising tensions on the peninsula. The last time it all kicked off between the two leaders, trading from Whitstable whelkers to South Korea's massive shellfish markets slowed significantly, damaging the pockets of fishers on small boats.

Whitstable harbour, Kent. All photos by the author.

Today, as many as seven boats working out of Whitstable harbour rely on overseas trade. About 95 percent of fish and shellfish landed is shipped abroad, with about half sold through agencies. One of the more moneyed areas is whelks. Koreans have a real taste for the sea snails, barbecuing and skewering them, serving them with kimchi, and tossing them through spicy salads and noodles.

But Kent's whelks are in danger, fishers believe, if the political climate in Korea doesn't ease. In September, Trump warned that the US would be willing to inflict "devastating" military action, prompting North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to accuse the White House of declaring war. In this unstable atmosphere, Korean traders are hesitant to splash out on large whelk orders from small towns in England.

Graham West, owner of Whitstable shellfish company West Whelks, has been processing and selling whelks since he left school. He followed his parents Derek and Jean into the family business, who started in the 1960s. They remember 25 years ago, the last time tempers flared over US missile sanctions, and are fearful that their business may be under threat again.

Derek and Jean West, who have been selling whelks since the 1960s.

"Whelks are our main business, and we rely heavily on overseas trade such as Korea," West tells me. "Right now, prices are high. It's the first time they've been stable in five years. But that could change overnight. There are fishermen here who fish solely for whelks. For trade to stop or slow would be unwelcome at best."

He continues: "There is a worry, yes. We don't know what's going to happen but you have to think about the worst case scenario. Hopefully war doesn't actually happen, but even all this commotion doesn't help, and can impact business. People are more afraid to invest and put out money when everything's so uncertain."

Britain exports around 10,000 tons of whelks each year, the majority of which end up in South Korea. It sounds like a lot, but companies in South Korea have been eager to establish larger processing plants to increase output. Their native conch species has been largely fished out, meaning that whelks are the alternative.

Fisherman Graham West.

Fishers in Kent and neighbouring Essex operate with a self-imposed cap of 300 pots per boat, per week, to ensure sustainability and the ability to continue a savvy, profitable trade. But this set-up is starting to look shaky.

"You never know what he's going to say, do you?" West says, referring to Trump. "We're always getting propositions for new business here. We don't do it [set up big, foreign-owned factories] because it's risky, like playing Russian roulette. And it's just that now. You might plough in all this money and then suddenly the purchasing stops. And you're left with all these unwanted whelks. That's what we're worried about now, but on the regular business, just our standard whelk orders."

Chairman of the Thanet Fisherman's Association John Nichols told the Whitstable Gazette recently that there's a need for Korean buying power given nobody buys whelks in Britain anymore: "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."

West (far right) at work with his wife to process the whelks.

Roger Cooper has now retired and his sons man his two fishing boats. He fished out of Whitstable for 45 years, during which time he often focused on whelks. He is also concerned.

"It's such a volatile market," he tells me. "A few years ago there was a bit of a dip. When you're selling to Korea, Japan, and so on, sometimes you don't get paid. I go through a middleman in King's Lynn [Norfolk], so payments are weekly. Not everyone has that," he says. "There's a lack of other stuff to catch off Kent. Whelks are a powerful financial proposition. I think if there's a big hit, I can ride it out. But it would be bad. Other produce doesn't so easily pay the bills."

He adds: "Maybe we should send Donald Trump a packet of frozen whelks. He'd probably be quiet then."

Trump is unlikely to dive into a bowl of whelks anytime soon. It seems, though, that fishers in Kent would rather he spent more time eating, and less time talking.