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Shellfish Businesses Say Government Plan To Build Purification Centres Won't Help Most Exports

5 min read

Shellfish businesses across the country say the government's plan to revive their sales to the European Union by building purification facilities in the UK will not work in the majority of cases.

Purifying cockles, mussels and oysters shortens their shelf lives, meaning many will die en route to EU buyers while others will arrive in poor quality and require further purification, they warned.

Shellfish farmers who PoliticsHome spoke to also said that building purification tanks big enough to accomodate their EU exports and in time for the next trading season was fanciful.

Environment Secretary George Eustice on Tuesday revealed in an interview with this website that the government was planning to use some of the £100m fishing fund announced in December to help shellfish traders nationwide build their own tanks for purifying shellfish.

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is trying to revive the UK's live shellfish exports in time for winter trading after an EU prohibiton on shellfish from class B waters from non-member states came into effect on January 1.

The rules put an immediate halt to British shellfish exports to the continent, despite the department previously telling the industry that the trade would be able to continue.

The regulations impact shellfish that are not ready for human consumption which up until January 1st were purified after reaching the continent and then distributed to restaurants and supermarkets.

John Holmyard, owner of Offshore Fishing in Devon, said "there's no point" in building purification tanks in the UK. The mussels he exports to Holland would quickly lose shelf life after being purified — or depurated — in the UK, he said, and would need putting in another tank upon arrival, which would almost certainly kill them due to stress.

“There is no way the trade can be facilitated for us by building depuration tanks," he said.

Holmyard, who said he has 2,500 tons of mussels on his far, waiting to be exported to the EU, explained that his company harvests ten tons an hour and the tank needed to facilitate these exports would be far bigger than anything than anything currently in the UK.

“There is nothing in this country of that size and there never will be. The government can give me money to go build an airport, but that doesn’t mean I can do it," he told PoliticsHome.

James Green, owner of Whitstable Oysters in Kent, said the purification tank he would need to depurate 20 tons of oysters a time "would be the size of a swimming pool".

He said: "It would take eight months to a year just to get the planning approved if you had the land, which we haven’t, and if it were a solution, which it isn’t.”

Green told PoliticsHome that it would take him up to 10 days to purify the volumes of cockles he exports to the EU in the tank he currently owns, and by that time they would be dead.

Green and some other oyster traders already own purification tanks which they use to depurate oysters for domestic consumption.

However, the tanks needed to accomodate the volume of live shellfish exports to the EU would be far bigger than anything currently in the UK and take up land which the shellfish businesses say isn't available.

Green told PoliticsHome that while he was encouraged to see DEFRA trying to ways of adapting to the new rules, which the EU says have been clear and in place for years, his customers "in France do not want purified oysters" because of its impact on their shelf life and quality upon arrival. Depuration reduces the shelf life of oysters by one to two days.

“What they want is a bulk commodity in a very good condition and you do that is taking them off the farm, grading them, and then a lorry picks takes them to France that night or the following monring," Green said.

Rob Benson, co-director of Kingfisher Seafoods in Cumbria, said: "Building depuration centres in the UK as solution to the export of live bivalve molluscs would be about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. It may seem like a good idea until you try to move forward".

Benson said the effect on purification on the shelf life of their cockles meant there was just a four-month window from October and February during which they could export them to the continent without them dying before arrival.

However, even in those cases the cockles would be in a race against time, Benson explained.

They would need to be sent straight to the final customers, rather than first going to the distrubutors, which would lead to exports costs multiplying, he said.The live shellfish industry has previously told DEFRA that building purification facilities in the UK is not a feasible solution to the post-Brexit barriers facing it, according to James Wilson of Deepdock Limited, a large mussel exporter on the Menai Strait in Wales.

“The government started talking to us about his about 3 or 4 weeks ago," he said.

"We had a meeting with several people from DEFRA and without any deviation the industry responses were it won’t work for the animals, economically or physiologically.

"So DEFRA just hasn’t listened to us at all”.

Luke Pollard, Shadow Environment Secretary, last night said the government plan to develop purification facilities at home for later in the year was "too little too late" and that "by then, there might not be any shellfish businesses left".

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesperson, said "anyone with any familiarity" of the shellfish industry knows that purification makes shellfish "significantly more vulnerable to any delay or disruption in transport".

A government spokesperson said: “There is no scientific or technical justification for the European Commission banning the import of live bivalve molluscs from class B waters. This is already impacting business and damaging markets on both sides of the channel.

“While we are continuing to raise the issue with the Commission we are working with the sector to explore a range of options to support the industry, including the possibility of grants for depuration infrastructure or developing new markets".

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