The Scottish fishing industry is enduring one of the toughest starts to a year it has faced in a very long time.
A dangerous mixture of Brexit and COVID-19 has melded into a ‘perfect storm’ for Scottish seafood exporters that is set to run for the long-haul.
On Friday, Scottish seafood groups demanded urgent assistance from the UK government after a week of disruptions and uncertainty at UK ports.
Health certificates, customs declarations and other paperwork have added hours to inspections increasing clearance times from 45 minutes pre-Brexit, to up to five hours, adding hundreds of pounds to the cost of each load. Last week, the first working week after Brexit, one-day deliveries were taking three or more days if they got through at all.
The delay at the ports is also hammering fish prices as the delays affect the freshness and quality of the product. Monkfish, for example has seen prices drop 50% as continental buyers knock pounds off kilos.
Such is the backlog of fish being exported the Scottish fishing industry’s biggest logistics provider DFDS Scotland told customers it had taken the “extraordinary step” of halting until Monday export groupage, when multiple product lines are carried, to try to fix IT issues, paperwork errors and the backlog. (Source)
Many news outlets have reported that Scottish fishing vessels have either been asked to stop fishing or to reduce their operations to curtail a huge waste of valuable fish and quota.
The start of the calendar year is a hugely important time for the Scottish fleet but without a good kick-start in January, many boat owners will be looking at another bleak year after the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The impacts of COVID-19 has hit the fleet hard, with Mike Park OBE, CEO of the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association (SWFPA), estimating that members took a hit of between 25% and 30% for last year on 2019 figures. The closure of markets on mainland Europe, and the shutdown of restaurants and other eateries that would traditionally sell fish had a bombshell impact on Scottish seafood sales. French fishing organisations in the north of the country also caused issues by calling for a ban on, what they called “cheap imports” of Scottish and Irish fish, as the lack of sales bit the domestic market.
COVID came back again and hit Scottish producers at the end of the year with delays at the Channel due to the French closing their borders at the news of a new strain of virus becoming prevalent in the southeast of England.
Now in the new year, the problems have not gone away and if anything, are looking to drag on into 2021, making it a miserable start for an industry that feels deflated after the Westminster Government sold them out to get the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement pushed through. Instead of getting their waters and quotas back as promised in the Brexit campaign of 2016, the UK fishing industry has been left hamstrung by an Agreement that limits their catching power rather than increasing it. On paper, the industry has ‘won’ an increase of 25% over the next five years, but the reality is less than pleasing to the industry.
Right now, the pressing issue is to keep the fleet operating at a reasonable level until markets recover but with no end to the COVID pandemic on the horizon, how the Scottish fishing industry can weather 2021 is something that Mike Park says cannot be predicted:
“All of a sudden you have the same producers and the same merchants sending product overseas having similar issues which must be putting strain on their cashflow situation.
“Irrespective of whether we can solve the issues of stopping the fish going across to the continent, we still have the issue of lockdown in this country and we still have issues like overseas restaurants not being open. So, not with-standing the current problems we have, there is still the overall problem that demand is probably not at what it should be anyway, which is just adding fuel to the fire.”
Mr Park informed The Fishing Daily that the SWFPA have not told their boats to stop fishing or to cut back in fishing effort, but members will be using common sense and not wasting valuable quota.
Boats on the east coast of Scotland or operating from the Islands often land catch into Norwegian ports but landing into Norway is not an option at the present moment as it is too expensive to make the trip across the North Sea without being able to supplement some of the cost by catching fish in the Norwegian zone on the return journey. In other years this would be a possibility but due to the Brexit situation there is no agreement in place to allow Scottish boats access Norwegian waters for the purpose of fishing. The UK and Norway has signed a fisheries framework agreement but due to the EU-UK Trade Agreement not being formalised, trilateral talks between the UK, EU and Norway have been delayed. Without an agreement, Scottish boats are locked-out of fishing in the Norwegian EEZ.
Quota for whitefish boats has also been hit by the Brexit deal, leading to a serious problem for boats operating in the North Sea. The ICES has advised the TAC on cod to be reduced 16.5% for 2021. This is just after a cut of 50% in the 2020 cod quota for the North Sea.
Cod in the North Sea is not a targeted species but is caught as a valuable bycatch along with other species in a mixed demersal fishery. This makes managing a reduction in fishing pressure on cod a difficult and challenging prospect, particularly in the context of the landing obligation and the potential for cod to choke other demersal fisheries. As vessels are no longer permitted to discard, chokes occur when the exhaustion of quota for one species precludes the vessel or group from catching the quotas of its main economic species. The concern now is that cod quota will be knock further out of alignment with the TACs for haddock, whiting, saithe, and plaice, increasing the risk of chokes dramatically in 2021.
In the past, Scottish fish producers could swap quota with their EU neighbours to avoid chokes. It is estimated that Scottish boats gained 60% of their cod quota from swaps over the last few years which allowed whitefish boats continue fishing. Without the quota swaps, boats will have to tie-up once the cod quota is exhausted, no matter how much quota they have left for other demersal species.
“We always knew this would not be a seamless transition,” acknowledges Mr Park but as with many others in the fishing industry and in other export businesses in the UK are left wondering why there was not a trial run on border controls changes before the 01 January 2021 when the new system went live, but in a defined line of the UK Government’s approach to Brexit, leaving everything to the last minute has become their signature.