New and uncertain horizonsUK seafood businesses have reported losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds as shipments have been delayed in transit

With the Brexit agreement now in place, the seafood industry finds itself in uncharted waters, writes Jason Holland

While the post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal agreement announced on Christmas Eve by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought some initial welcome relief to panicked seafood exporters and importers on both sides of the Channel, many UK seafood producer-exporters have since found that the new border protocols are much more convoluted than they had hoped for, a situation exacerbated by the very small window given for everyone to prepare for their introduction.

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which entered into force on 1st January, had already received a very frosty reception from Britain’s fishing communities, with many across the sector feeling extremely short-changed by the new arrangements, not least the fact that despite government promises to the contrary, EU vessels can to continue to fish in the country’s waters.

Specifically, what’s angered the UK fishing industry is that the agreement includes a five-and-a-half-year transition period whereby each party will grant full access to vessels of the other party to fish specified TACs and non-quota stocks in the respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs, 12-200 nautical miles); in a specified part of the waters of the parties between six and 12 nautical miles; and to the Crown Dependencies of the UK.

On the plus-side, under the TCA, there are zero tariffs on goods traded between the EU and the UK, which means that access to lucrative EU markets – a priority for many British seafood businesses – can be maintained, albeit with new Export Health Certificates, Catch Certificates and other labelling requirements.

Bitter disappointment

While fishing contributes a modest 0.1% of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP), fishing quotas and access to waters were a contentious area throughout the trade deal negotiation process. UK fishermen had been hoping for an exclusive 12-mile limit for the inshore sector, as well as fishing opportunities based on zonal attachment and control over fishery regulations. As such, the deal that they ultimately found themselves with has been regarded as a poor one, while catchers across the water are understandably much more relieved.

In a statement issued by the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation (CFPO), the body’s CEO Paul Trebilcock, summed up the betrayal felt by the region’s fishermen, saying: “We’ve had our expectations continually raised by the prime minister, and MPs, for years now. Promises of full and absolute control of our waters and better fishing opportunities have been made time and time again only to be shattered at the final moment. For government to say this is a good deal is hugely disappointing, it is certainly not the deal we were led to believe we would receive, and it has left Cornish fishermen feeling angry and insulted.”

Paul Trebilcock’s comments refer to statements made by Johnson following the signing of the TCA that through the deal, the UK’s share of fish in its waters would rise substantially from roughly half today to closer to two-thirds in 2026, after which there would be no theoretical limit beyond those placed by science or conservation on the amount of fish that UK fishers could land in their own waters. The PM also announced a new £100 million investment programme to help fishing communities modernise their fleets and the fish processing sector.

Scottish government also voiced its scepticism, saying that while there should be some modest increases in Scotland’s pelagic landings and some other stocks, the deal will lead to a reduction in the volume of key fishing stocks landed by the nation’s fleet, including cod, haddock, whiting and saithe.

Because the terms of the Brexit deal stipulate that the swapping of quotas with individual member states is no longer allowed and leasing will be prohibitively expensive, it reckons that it will see the fleet’s access to these fisheries reduced to levels below those under the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) arrangements – even at the end of the five-and-half-year phase-in period – and that this will have potential knock-on effects for harbours, fish markets and processors across Scotland.

Stuck in transit

With around three-quarters of the UK’s seafood exports going to the EU, it was widely agreed that having a trade deal was crucial for the future of the sector, but despite the government’s assertion that businesses can now start to do things differently and better, many of those companies dependent on this commerce have encountered severe disruptions at distribution hubs and borders this year.

As an industry that continues to struggle with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, not least massive end-market shifts, hampered productivity in processing plants thanks to the social distancing rules, as well as the general landscape of a third British lockdown, the delays present another major cause for concern for seafood stakeholders. As such, the UK government is being urged to address the obstacles brought by the Brexit red tape and to provide adequate compensation for those affected. So far, these problems have largely stemmed from confusion over paperwork, the extra documentation now needed to move goods, and IT issues at borders.

At the time of writing, some seafood businesses had already reported sales losses amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, with fears that things that could get much worse in the coming weeks. Concurrently, many fishing vessels have remained tied up in harbour, while others have been steaming directly to European ports to land their fish, by-passing some elements of the post-Brexit bureaucracy.

Frustratingly, seafood bodies had given the government fair warning that such issues would likely ensue and had unsuccessfully appealed for a gradual implementation or bedding-in period of any new rules.

“Had a deal been concluded even a couple of months ago, that would have given our producers and hauliers the time to test out the new systems, trial the paperwork and get everything in place,” the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation’s Chief Executive, Tavish Scott, said, adding that lorry loads of salmon were stuck in Scotland in the first weeks of January.

“Our members are resourceful and have been trying everything they can to get fish to customers in Europe, including new routes, but every delay forces the price of our product down and hands the initiative to our international competitors.”

Seafood Scotland’s Chief Executive, Donna Fordyce, reinforced the point that despite producers’ efforts to work through all the extra red tape, it has proved an almost impossible task, given the lack of preparation time.

“The UK government has to realise the enormous difficulties that have been placed in the way of exporters simply because there wasn’t a workable system in place by the end of Brexit transition, despite numerous warnings that there would be issues,” she said.

While the finger-pointing is certain to continue in the weeks and months ahead, what the industry really needs now is the platform to look ahead and the means to expedite seafood produce to continental Europe. It has identified that this necessitates the prompt delivery of workable solutions to overcome these so-called Brexit teething problems, as well as an aligned package of support to mitigate the current difficulties encountered in crossing borders. It’s also clear to many that anything less from UK government might ultimately prove catastrophic for a lot of the sector’s stakeholders.

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