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Exclusive: EU Says A Post-Brexit Shellfish Export Ban Is Indefinite, After Government Claimed It Was Only Temporary

5 min read

The European Union has told the UK shellfish industry that thousands of tonnes of oyster, mussel, clam, cockle and scallop exports are banned from the bloc indefinitely.

British fishers, who had been told by government to expect the ban to last until spring, are warning this will be a fatal blow to their businesses.

PoliticsHome reported last month that wild shellfish caught in most UK waters that were not ready for human consumption — shellfish known collectively as live bivalve molluscs (LBMs) — had been barred from entering the EU.

This shellfish is normally purified or processed in the EU before it is distributed to supermarkets, restaurants and bars. The UK government told affected businesses and PoliticsHome that this ban was set to expire on April 21, when Brussels implemented new animal health legislation.

However, a European Commission official last week wrote to the British shellfish industry stating that the ban, which is impacting shellfish traders in England and Wales in particular, would remain in place indefinitely and would also include farmed shellfish.

In the email sent on Tuesday, January 19th, and seen by PoliticsHome, the EU official said it was “strictly forbidden for bivalve molluscs originating from third countries, [such] as UK" not ready for human consumption to enter the EU at any time, and that "molluscs accompanied by an aquaculture certificate, wild or from aquaculture, cannot in any case reach a depuration centre in the EU". 

The email resulted in an urgent meeting of the British shellfish industry on Monday, January 25th, in which businesses were told that the bombshell development was “contrary to the information we had previously received” from the government and would have “huge implications” for the shellfish industry. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had been advising shellfish traders that they would be able to resume live shellfish exports to the EU in late April.

PoliticsHome has seen an email sent by Fisheries Minister Victoria Prentis in November, just weeks before the end of the Brexit transition period, which said that this trade would be able to restart with “the introduction of a relevant certificate," which Brussels is due to introduce on April 21.

However, the EU has told the industry that this will not be the case.

A government source confirmed that UK officials were aware of the EU’s stance, with a DEFRA spokesperson telling PoliticsHome: “We will continue to raise the issue of live bivalve molluscs not ready for human consumption with the EU, to ensure the trade can continue securely.”

Prior to the UK leaving the single market and customs union on New Year’s Eve, thousands of tonnes of live shellfish caught by British fishers in areas like Morecambe Bay and Devon were shipped to the continent, where they would then be processed. 

“This is not a teething issue, this is the government removing all our teeth and leaving us unable to eat.” – Rob Benson, director of Kingfisher Seafoods Limited

However, strict EU hygiene rules mean shellfish that are not ready to be eaten are no longer allowed to enter the bloc, resulting in this multi-million pound trade grinding to a halt overnight.

One of the companies affected by the ban is Kingfisher Seafoods, based in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.

It is the one of the largest exporters of wild caught shellfish in the north of England, sending up to 2,500 tonnes of cockles and mussels to customers in Spain, France, Holland, and Ireland every year.The company said that in order to continue exporting its shellfish to European companies, which it must do to survive, it would have to invest up to £1million on processing equipment, as well as packing and labelling, which it said was not feasible. 

Kingfisher Seafoods Limited’s director, Rob Benson, said that the business he set up 17 years ago with co-director, Dr Omar Namor, was facing collapse. He told PoliticsHome: “Our business relies almost entirely on sending live cockles and mussels for further processing in the EU. 

“Our sales have dropped off a cliff since December 31st. We were bracing ourselves to keep going until April but this news has all but destroyed any hope we had of the future. 

“This is not a teething issue, this is the government removing all our teeth and leaving us unable to eat”.

He added: “This is not new EU policy. This has always been there. 

“This is the government not doing their job to safeguard the industry”.

“Before December 31 we were in the EU and DEFRA was responsible for policing imports from third countries. Now we are out of the EU how come it is only now we are told of the situation. It’s like saying a policeman who’s been on the beat for the last 50 years didn’t know the law”.

Luke Pollard, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "This makes a mockery of ministerial claims the problems with shellfish exports are only teething troubles. 

“The fishing industry has every right to feel betrayed by the Government's Brexit deal”.

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesperson, on Monday afternoon wrote to Prentis asking for "clarification on your part as to how businesses were so severely misled and why it was left to the European Commission to inform our seafood industry of the reality of the situation".

He said: "As you will no doubt be aware, an indefinite ban on live shellfish exports to the EU will have a catastrophic impact on seafood producers across the UK, including high quality scallop catchers in my constituency.

"Given the already-significant disruption and long-term concerns the industry has due to the Government’s new trade deal with the EU, many companies affected risk closing operations entirely".

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