Relief at one end of the UK seafood and fishing spectrum – with dismay and accusations of a sell-out at the other. That is the contrasting reaction to the news on Christmas Eve that Britain had finally reached a trade deal with the EU.
The announcement was broadly welcomed (with reservations) by the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Association, whose members arguably had the most to lose under a no-deal scenario.
But the main UK fishing organisations have said they are deeply disappointed at the outcome, claiming they will only receive a fraction of what they were promised in the Leave campaign.
The SSPO Chief Executive Tavish Scott, said: “We are pleased the negotiators have at last secured a deal. This will alleviate some of the serious problems that would come from a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
“But we still have concerns. The disruption at the Channel right now is hitting our members ability to export. Brexit means the Scottish salmon sector now faces the reality of lots more red tape, bureaucracy and paperwork which are the reality of the extra trade barriers which come with Brexit.”
He added: “So until we see how this UK-EU agreement actually works in practice, it is impossible to make a clear judgement on how the new trading arrangement in 2021 will affect salmon farming.”
The salmon sector is also concerned about the new Brexit requirement for tens of thousands of Export Health Certificates (EHCs) from 1 January. Salmon farmers have been assured there will be enough staff to process the extra paperwork. But there is still considerable uncertainty as to whether arrangements will work as planned. The cost of the extra EHCs is expected to be at least £1.3 million to the sector every year – a cost that did not exist prior to Brexit for UK-EU trade.
In 2019, over 53,000 tonnes of fresh whole Scottish salmon were exported to the European Union with a value of over £320 million, helping make the fish the UK’s number one food export.
Elspeth Macdonald, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said that while the full details of the agreement had yet to emerge, on the surface it did not appear to deliver on the industry’s aspirations.
“What has been outlined so far is that full access will be granted to EU vessels for effectively six years from January,” she said.
“Over the same timescale the increase in quota shares for UK vessels will be 25 per cent.
“The Government has not yet provided the full text of the agreement or how this increase will apply to particular species, so it is very difficult to make a detailed assessment of the impact on our industry.
She concluded: “However, the principles that the Government said it supported – control over access, quota shares based on zonal attachment, annual negotiations – do not appear to be central to the agreement.
“After all the promises given to the industry, that is hugely disappointing. We expect to be able to study the detail in the coming days and will issue a further statement when we have been able to do so.”
The strongest condemnation has come from the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which represents English, Welsh and Northern Irish interests, which accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of “bottling it”.
The NFFO said: “The answer is both obvious and bitter. When push came to shove, despite the legal, moral and political strength of our case, fishing was sacrificed for other national objectives.
“Lacking legal, moral, or political negotiating leverage on fish, the EU made the whole trade deal contingent on a UK surrender on fisheries. In the end-game, the Prime Minister made the call and caved in on fish, despite the rhetoric and assurances that he would not do what Ted Heath did in 1973.”
The NFFO statement continued: “There will of course be an extensive public relations exercise to portray the deal as a fabulous victory, but it will inevitably be seen by the fishing industry as a defeat. There will be those at either end of the leave – remain spectrum in the “told you so” mould, but there was no inevitability about this outcome.
“The UK negotiating team fought hard and long – fishing was the last issue to be settled – but in the final stretch the decisions lay at the very top of government – with the Prime Minister – and he bottled it. Economics reasserted its dominance over politics.”