Centuries Old Shellfish Traders Are Facing Collapse After EU Exports Are Banned Altogether
The government faces pressure to provide "as much support as humanly possible" to UK shellfish traders who have seen their exports grind to a halt as post-Brexit rules mean their catches are now totally banned from the EU.
Since January 1, shellfish that are caught in UK but are not ready for human consumption have been barred from entering the EU. These shellfish – known in the industry as wild harvested live bivalve molluscs (LMBs) – include mussels, cockles, and scallops, and up until the end of 2020, were caught in British waters and then processed once they had reached the continent.
But that trade, which has brought millions of pounds into British coastal communities in the southwest of England, Morecambe Bay, Orkney and elsewhere, has totally ground to a halt.
“Without the EU customers, we wouldn’t exist as professional fishermen,” said Steve Manning, whose family in Flookburgh, Cumbria has caught shellfish on Morecambe Bay since the eighteenth century.
“We have been building these customers for years and we have some great family businesses in France, mainly Brittany, with whom we’ve not only become business partners, but great friends," he said.
“Our main worry is that the customers who we deal with – I have been sending to one family in France since 1999 – are going to find other suppliers, because they need the shellfish. It’s not just about quality, it’s about reliability.”
Exports to France account for 95% of the family’s sales, with the rest sold locally and to elsewhere in Europe. Manning’s family is one of a dozen in Flookburgh whose livelihoods have been put at risk by the ban, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it is trying to rectify but admits that it currently has no control over.
The department led by George Eustice says the ban will remain in place until at least April 21st, when the EU plans to implement new Animal Health Regulations which are set to allow the resumption of wild harvested LMB imports from the UK.
“We are working to find a solution for the interim period," a DEFRA spokesperson told PoliticsHome.
However, many shellfish traders are already struggling financially and won’t last that long, according to Sarah Horsfall of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB).
She told PoliticsHome that she “absolutely” expected some businesses affected by the ban to collapse before end of April, as the industry has already suffered financially from having their main customers, restaurants, close their doors for three coronavirus lockdowns.
“The resilience and ability to ride out the rough patches has pretty much gone already in the industry. We are looking at very, very difficult situations for people,” she said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week announced that fish traders whose exports to the EU have been disrupted since the end of the Brexit transition period would each be entitled to up to £100,000 worth of compensation. Businesses must provide evidence of financial losses in order to receive the support.
Horsfall said she was concerned that some smaller and family-run shellfish businesses with very few staff might not be entitled to financial support as they aren’t registered fishing vessels.
“It is very unclear at the moment and we are still waiting for the details to be released,” she said.
Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron, who represents Manning’s constituency of Westmorland & Lonsdale, said the ban was “yet another devastating blow for British fisherman” and called on the government to provide “as much support as humanly possible”.
He told PoliticsHome: “With no prior warning, these fishermen now find themselves in a position when their income has dropped off a cliff and the future of their livelihoods has been thrown into serious doubt."
Countless fish traders who are allowed to export to the EU have had orders cancelled by European customers due to time-consuming paperwork creating lengthy delays. Some Scottish boats have resorted to landing in Denmark and having their fish processed there, in order to circumvent disruption in the UK.