Exclusive: Government Is Writing To The EU Over Post-Brexit Shellfish Ban Which Threatens To Destroy Businesses
The government is set to write to the European Union as soon as today about the bloc's post-Brexit ban on mussels, cockles, and other shellfish caught in UK waters, PoliticsHome has learned.
Environment Secretary George Eustice is expected to send a letter to the European Commission expressing the government's dismay with the ban, which the EU says has been in law for all third countries for a number of years, as the government tries to stop affected businesses going under.
PoliticsHome can also reveal that DEFRA on Thursday advised shellfish businesses that exporting to the EU live catch from class B waters — which is most UK waters — was not possible at all.
The European Commission last month wrote to the UK shellfish industry informing it that unpurified oysters, mussels, clams, cockles and scallops caught in those waters were banned from the EU indefinitely since the UK left the Brexit transition period on New Year's Eve.
This information, first reported by PoliticsHome, was contrary to advice given to the industry by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
The government department had been telling UK shellfish businesses that the EU ban would only last until April 21, when the EU is set to implement new animal health regulations, and did not affect farmed shellfish.
Eustice on Wednesday defended the government's handling of the shellfish crisis, telling a Lords sub-committee that Brussels had changed its position on live shellfish imports twice and that its current stance was "legally wrong" and unjustified".
His comments reflected fury behind the scenes, with government officials adamant that the EU had misled them on the issue of the UK's live shellfish exports to the continent. The government considered having Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove send the letter to the EU, in an indication of how serious it believes the issue to be.However, the European Commissions sent another email to the British shellfish industry this week, which set out the legal basis for the bloc's ban on certain shellfish from third countries like the UK.
The email said that "animal and public health rules for the import into the EU of live bivalve molluscs from third countries are clear and have been elaborated during the last 30 years by the EU Institutions and its Member States".
The European Commission believes that DEFRA misunderstood EU law when it advised the shellfish industry that the ban, which has applied to the UK since January 1st, would expire on April 21.
UK shellfish exporters, which are based mainly in England and Wales, depend on sales to the EU.
Up until January 1, they sent unpurified oysters, mussels, clams, cockles and scallops to customers in France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, where they would be processed and then sent to bars, restaurants and supermarkets for consumption.
Rob Benson, director of Kingfisher Seafoods, a 17-year-old seafood company based in Cumbria, told PoliticsHome that the news had "all but destroyed any hope we had of the future".
The Clyde Fisherman’s Association's Elaine Whyte on Thursday told the Scottish Affairs Committee that British shellfish markets would be lost forever if the ban remained in place, and called on the government to intervene.
"You could be losing live markets entirely and permanently and there's no way around that at the moment," Whyte told MPs on the committee.
"We need to have some political dialogue on that to try and change the situation".