UK seafood exporters are facing ruin and the industry will lose tens of millions unless the issue with paperwork bureaucracy is resolved
Leaders from the Seafood Scotland, the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and Waterdance Fishing Company met today with the Environment, Food and Rural Committee to discuss the continuing impacts the industry is still experiencing two-month on from Brexit.
Attending the Committee was Donna Fordyce, Seafood Scotland, Sarah Horsfall, Co-Chief Executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain and Martyn Youell, Senior Managers of Fisheries and Quota of Waterdance.
The representatives told attending MP’s that UK seafood exporters are facing ruin and the industry will lose tens of millions unless the issue with paperwork bureaucracy is resolved.
Asked whether there had been any improvement seafood exports Martyn Youell replied:
“Teething problems we thought was a particularly poor choice of words given that what we found really is that the difficulties in exporting product and indeed in producing product by fishing companies appear to be in the large majority systemic issues of trade under the agreement that’s been reached to date.
“So, whilst some things have settled down some obvious issues, then we feel that we remain with at least 80% of the trading difficulties that have been encountered are still in existence today.
“And indeed, we think that without some real political action to change the terms of trade will continue with the best will of civil servants who are working very diligently. They work within a restriction in terms of what the politicians can set for them to deliver and at the moment we should be aspiring to have the closest trading relationship with the EU of any nation given our shared history, yet we’re miles behind a lot of other nations in terms of the way we can trade in terms of some of the details so, they’re not teething problems for us, and as the committee permits, I can go into more detail about impacts and ways we think could be improved because we do want to focus on the future.”
The issues with exports to the EU has been partly blamed of the amount of paperwork that fish and shellfish exporters are dealing with in order to get their produce onto the EU market. Mr Youell was asked if there was a digital solution for the paperwork problem.
He said: “That has to be the aspiration in my view.
“We are used to doing all sorts of things online. It made our lives so much easier as citizens and businesses to be able to do that.
“Unfortunately, we’ve inherited a system that, at least for now, is largely paper based, which is, which is a massive, massive problem, and you’ve probably seen BBC reports from Samways Fish Merchants who are the leading exporters from fish bought by EU companies on the bricks and market of 71 pieces of paper for one lorry load of fish.
“So yes, simple things like electronic signatures on documents would move us forward and we can come on to some more detailed ways that myself and colleagues think they could be improvement.
“Yes, digitalization is massive. It’s got to be good for those importing to the UK from the EU as well as us exporting. Some kind of shared system that we can all have confidence in should be a key aspiration for the government.”
Donna Fordyce from the Seafood Scotland agreed with Mr Youell.
She said: “I echo everything that Martin has said that you know it has been a mixture of teething troubles and systemic troubles as well.
“I think we are getting to the end of the teething issues but there is a lot of issues that needs to be resolved.”
Ms Fordyce pointed out that the supplies chains for fresh fish from the UK were deeply integrated with the EU.
“You go from the 31st of December, having nothing to do, to the 1st of January needing everything. Single companies were prepared as much as it can be. It just too many systems, too many things that you know up against time. The way that the companies do business.
“You buy fresh on the market that morning, process it, collecting it at lunch time, getting it away down to the hubs, onto the marketplace from next morning.
“The new system just doesn’t allow that. We cannot guarantee the one from day two, which we did before. So, the reputational risk of the UK is getting lost day by day and we need to be rebuild that.”
Sarah Horfell told the Committee: “So obviously we deal with exclusively with shellfish, and whilst I agree with the comments that my two colleagues have made, that is slightly different for shellfish.
“So, we deal largely with live product. Essentially so we may be exporting crabs or lobsters on vivier tanks, but they are live product, so when, as my colleagues have described having delays getting from the marketplace in the UK to the markets abroad that actually for us we are delayed, for example for four hours that can mean that the product actually misses the market that day in France or in Spain and has to wait until the next day, which can have very considerable impacts on the mortality rates of the product.
“So, it makes a Much different problem getting to the marketplace. More product is dead, and more product is in less good condition.
“With regard to the paperwork, absolutely it seems to be extremely excessive.
“There were very difficult teething troubles to begin with, but even so, as the others have said, we’re left with this system which is unwieldy and very difficult in terms of getting particularly the EHCs signed off, and this means that we’ve got a very increased cost as well now, exporters are telling me that this goes between about £400 to £600 per consignment.
“Now, obviously, if you’ve got a small consignment that’s going to be very much more per kilo of product than it is for an entire lorry load so, this is going to impact on the smaller businesses much more than on the bigger ones,
“But even so, some of the bigger ones are now saying to us we will have to assess somewhere down the line whether this is cost effective to do this business model anymore because the four to 600 pounds is just the cost of the paperwork and then of course you’ve got the costs in the business itself for the staff to fill in this paperwork, etc, etc.
“So, you might need another two or three people on staff, and it adds up to a considerable cost.
“But aside from that, of course, on the shellfish side we have the total prohibition of live bivalve mollusks from because B class waters.”
The delays and added costs could have huge effects on seafood businesses with Donna Fordyce warning that some smaller companies could face an annual bill of up to £250,000 for paperwork alone.
Seafood Scotland’s Donna Fordyce warned that in the “medium term” we will see “a lot of smaller companies stop trading to Europe, and it may ultimately be their demise.”
Sarah Horsfall warned “we have already seen a couple of (shellfish) companies close their doors” and warned that more would follow.
Asked if there were any solutions to the current problems, Sarah Horsfall was asked if a return to the Single Market, for a short grace period would help ease the current crisis facing the seafood industry she said:
“I think that’s really interesting point, because of course it depends on what the detail would be if we were able to go back to where we were prior to December 31st, 2020, exactly the same position with regard to seafood export, then clearly it would make things an awful lot easier for the companies at the moment, and then we would know what challenges faced us and we would be able to work towards sorting out these streamlined systems that the others have mentioned and get it or computerises.
So, there’s no doubt that that would absolutely help if we could get back to that situation exactly, but whether that’s feasible or possible, I really don’t have any clue at this point in time.
“For the shellfish industry, in particular, we had little to gain if you like from Brexit because we largely non–quota species anyway, so we were not defined by quota anyway.
“All virtually all of the bulk of the shellfish market is exported, so we had in the shellfish sector very little to gain from Brexit and an awful lot to lose and unfortunately that’s the way it’s turned out. If we could turn back the clock and get and get this grace period, that would be really, really wonderful.
Martyn Youell said that he is not in favour of backtracking but instead said the UK Government could do a lot to improve the infrastructure within the UK to make systems work smoother. He said: “It does sound quite attractive, but at some point, you do have to bite the bullet and deal with the terms.
“But yes, but at the moment we as a fishing business have had export issues and dramatically increased costs, over £400,000 in increased costs to try to avoid the EU buyers shouldering all of the extra cost of being completely put off southwest fish.
“We’ve had that on top of the COVID disruption and very a difficult and uncertain operating environment because of the Trading Corporation Agreement where we don’t have quotas for 2021 defined and we’re not able to trade quotas internationally, at least not to date. So, it has been painful, and grace period may ease some of that pain, but I would perhaps caution against completely booting down the road.
“Maybe there’s a middle way. So, for example, one of the things the government could possibly do reasonably quickly would be to encourage greater investment from the private sector customs agents.
“We have found them working extremely hard and doing their absolute best, but massively under resourced with the volume of trade. And indeed, in some locations, environmental health officers are under resourced, so could the government invest more through local government, environmental health officer’s capacity, so they’re perhaps there a bit more mobile to move to site and encouraging customs agent to invest in greater capacity in whatever ways possible.
by Oliver McBride, Editor