After several years of trying to interest parliamentarians in our small sector, we have finally succeeded in getting an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Shellfish Aquaculture off the ground.

Thanks are due to to our enthusiastic local MP Anthony Mangnall, with assistance from David Jarrad, Chief Executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB).

Mangnall visited our offshore mussel farm sites back in the summer, listened to our ideas about how to overcome the barriers to growth facing the shellfish aquaculture industry and promised to get these heard “where it matters”.

What we requested was a strong political voice in parliament for a sector that is not being fully listened to. There may be challenges, but there are also huge opportunities, which are being stifled by regulatory burdens, not all of which are Brexit related.

The inaugural meeting kicked off in February, with Simon Fell MP elected as Chair, Mangnall as Vice-Chair and seven MPs in attendance. SAGB agreed to take on the secretariat role, with assistance from Seafish. Speakers included John and Sarah Holmyard from Offshore Shellfish, James Wilson from Deepdock Mussels (and Bangor Mussel Producers), Sarah Horsfall from SAGB and James Green from Whitstable Oysters.

Fell told Fish Farmer: “I am delighted to have been elected as Chair of the new All-Party Parliamentary Group for Shellfish Aquaculture. This is a really important issue for Furness, with Kingfisher Seafoods and the Morecambe Bay Oysters shellfish hatchery both located in my constituency.

“For the UK, it is key that we make good progress on this over the next couple of months with Ministers, as the sector requires proper attention being given to it. Many small family companies are at risk of losing their livelihoods if we don’t reopen routes for them to sell produce to the markets that need them.”

Mangnall agreed that the UK shellfish industry had been overlooked.

“I have seen first hand the value of the shellfish industry to the environment, to the economy and to our coastal communities. We can and must do more to recognise the potential for growth and to provide clarity and support for this industry. This group seeks to be the parliamentary mouthpiece for the shellfish aquaculture industry to Defra, the Fisheries Minister and Whitehall officials,” he said.

David Jarrad explained to MPs that farmed shellfish is environmentally benign, enhances habitat diversity, supports the food security agenda, encourages a blue economy and creates jobs in rural communities. Importantly, it is one of the most efficient methods of protein production, uses no feed, chemicals or medicines, provides ecosystem services and acts as a carbon and nitrogen sink.

Official European figures show that in 2017, marine aquaculture production relative to available coastline in the UK was just 0.9 tonnes per kilometre (t/km), compared with 17.3t/km in France, 29.4t/km in the Netherlands and 33.5t/km in Spain, leaving huge room for improvement.

English, Scottish and Welsh strategies all call for a very large increase in shellfish production over the next two decades, yet mussel production declined by 40% between 2013 and 2019, from 22,480 tonnes to 13,240 tonnes, with a value of £13.4m. Oyster production rose in the same period from 1,261 tonnes to 2,680 tonnes, with a value of £8.25m, but this is still at a low level compared with Europe.

“The SAGB sees the development of a Shellfish Aquaculture APPG as a huge step forward in helping parliamentarians understand both the serious issues facing the sector and the huge potential for ecofriendly expansion,” Jarrad said.

Wilson spoke of the export issues caused by UK producers only being able to export shellfish direct to the EU if it had been grown in grade A waters. Shellfish from grade B waters must be depurated before export, which can affect product quality, and there are no large-scale facilities available this side of the English Channel and EU buyers prefer to depurate it themselves. Most of the UK’s waters are grade B and only 20 areas are currently designated grade A.

Wilson explained that a Shellfish Stakeholder Working Group had been set up to work through the challenges, which commissioned a report from Seafish, entitled Review of the application of the Official Control Regulations for shellfish production as they relate to microbial contamination. This sets out the unfavourable rules imposed by the UK authorities on shellfish businesses compared with European and wider global bodies, and has been passed to the Food Standards Agency and Defra for action. However, progress is pitifully slow.

Greater progress is also needed from DEFRA through the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Committee to have the former trade in live bivalve mussels from grade B waters with the EU reinstated.

Sarah Holmyard talked about the export challenges she has faced since Brexit, especially since the introduction of European Health Certificates in January 2022, which need to be signed by a veterinary surgeon. These are costly and currently cannot be filled in electronically.

She said there had been an increase in the number of physical checks at both UK and French ports this year, with rules changed regularly, some of which do not appear to be based on regulations.

“The whole process is very stressful and there is considerable room for error, which can result in a load being rejected and sent back to the UK. This has happened to us,” she said.

Additionally, the uncertainty over exports because of the water classification system has led to investor insecurity and a lack of momentum to develop the industry further.

Oyster farmers are facing the death of their industry as a result of Natural England’s latest policy to stamp out the spread of feral Pacific oysters, which have started to breed naturally in the UK. Sarah Horsfall told MPs that the Government needs a clear strategy on Pacific oysters, allowing their continued farming in the UK. For over a decade, SAGB has asked Defra to accept this species as resident, as it is in Europe, but it has been unwilling to do so in light of pressure from Natural England. The current regulation is based on EU law, but no EU country has such an unclear policy as the UK.

Green outlined the issues with water quality caused by discharges from combined sewage overflows, which are causing poor water quality and affecting the classification of waters grading for shellfish firms. He stated that a lack of dialogue from water companies together with a lack of investment or action to address the problem were major issues that need to be addressed.

The Chair agreed to discuss all the issues raised with the Fisheries Minister, Victoria Prentis MP and invite her to the next meeting, and pledged that the APPG would engage directly with water companies.

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