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Luke Pollard MP: We must act now to protect Britain’s shellfish industry

4 min read

Uncertainty over Brexit and delays at the border will mean the shellfish sector suffers particularly badly, writes Luke Pollard MP 

Britain’s shellfish industry is a hidden secret. More than 80% of all shellfish landed in the UK is exported, largely to our friends in the EU. The fishing industry faces massive uncertainty and potentially huge challenges from a no deal Brexit, but the shellfish sector looks to be disproportionately affected whether there’s a deal or not. There isn’t just one fishing industry. There are dozens of sectors, each with specialist fishers and different gear – which also varies by the season and area of water. Trawlers tend to grab the headlines, but other sectors deserve our attention too, including shellfish.

Crabs and lobsters landed around the UK receive the highest prices when shipped live via vivier lorries (trucks designed to ship live shellfish from harbour to market) to the EU. They provide the single highest-value, high-volume market, and with just months until the end of the Brexit transition period the industry’s uncertainty and frustrations are palpable.

New financial burdens from tariffs seem to be the least of this sector’s worries. It is more likely the loss of frictionless trade, and the associated costs, will bite the hardest. But the uncertainty that still exists means that for most there is little they can do to plan a direction for their businesses, all of which affects cashflow.

‘The only certainty for the shellfish sector seems to be uncertainty’

Hauliers have predicted that costs associated with customs clearance may double or triple the current costs of frictionless trade for their clients. Estimates of costs from local authorities for producing health certificates vary hugely, with the International Trade Committee being told that quotes range from £50 to £800. There is an argument for government to step in and regulate these new burdens, but even then, many feel smaller clients in the EU market will simply be priced out and forced to look elsewhere.

At the time of writing, we have no confirmation of which existing ports and routes in the EU markets will accept vivier lorries or, more broadly, fresh or frozen fisheries products. It is for member states to apply for Border Inspection Point status at the EU level, but not all BIPs are created equal. They can for example take fresh but no vivier or frozen shipments, or any combination they see fit.

France is the main export market for crustaceans such as crab and lobster, followed by Spain, Portugal and Italy. France and Spain are the main markets for molluscs, scallops etc, and Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are of relevance for cephalopods such as cuttlefish. Most of them route through French ports and it will be for the French government to apply and provide these routes – but it is in their gift not to. These ‘just in time’ markets mean that even 24-hour delays at borders run the risk of quality deterioration, customers refusing goods and suppliers not being paid. The UK’s current significant market share is in part because of the quality of our fishermen’s catches but also the strong supply chains that have helped to build market dominance – all based on a high-quality, next day delivery that looks to be eroded under any deal.

The only certainty for the shellfish sector seems to be uncertainty. It is unlikely these lucrative EU markets can be replaced easily or without significant upfront cost. Fresh live prices always beat processed or frozen prices. UK merchants are already adept at tapping into new markets where opportunity arises, but with them often comes uncertainty.  The recent development of the Chinese market saw bumper quantities of brown crab shipped in the past couple years – only to have a new Cadmium testing regime introduced meaning live shellfish died waiting for results, demonstrating how fragile these far flung markets can be.

Fishing might be the Brexit poster industry but the conditions for a coastal renaissance are far from ready. That needs to change if this industry is not to suffer from a hurried and uncertain Brexit.

Luke Pollard is Labour Co-operative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and shadow environment secretary

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