Fish – it used to be so easy…

Mention “Samways” to locals around the west Dorset town of Bridport and they’re most likely to tell you simply, “they’ve got that fish shop at West Bay”. They’re right about the fish shop, but Samways are a lot more than that. Clifford Samways started selling fish from a wooden barrow in West Bay in 1961 and it’s still very much a family firm. They moved into European haulage in 1985, and they have been exporting 95 per cent of their fish and seafood to the EU.

 They employ between 30 and 40 people at any one time, and each week they send seven or eight 44-tonne articulated trucks to Europe from their depot in Bridport, loaded with fish and seafood products. Most goes to France, Spain and Italy but some ends up in restaurants and supermarkets as far away as China and the USA after ‘added value’ processes in Europe. In addition to handling the catches from the fishing vessels which work out of ports and harbours close to the company’s base, Samways support many other jobs in the fishing industry too, conveying fresh fish from Newlyn, Brixham, Plymouth and even from Wales.

Samways fresh fish shop in West Bay. Photo by the author

After trading for as long as they have, Samways know their business.

So why did they feel compelled, in an open letter to all Westminster MP’s on 6 January, to say this: “We now face a situation where time-sensitive seafood cargo is facing major complications without the benefits that were promised to many during the referendum campaign”.

West Country Bylines spoke to Samways, to find out more about these “major complications”.

For months leading up to the end of the Brexit transition period, Samways had very clearly done their homework to enable their export of fish to the EU to continue, including using government guidance Exporting or moving fish from the UK : it’s not a quick read. At considerable extra cost to themselves, Samways also worked extensively with local vets to obtain the new Export Health Certificates and meet other EU phyto-sanitary requirements. In short, they most definitely had not sat back and waited for events to unfold with the UK-EU trade deal negotiations. They felt they were as well prepared as any company possibly could be, they told me, especially since “the deal” with the EU was only agreed on December 24th, the day before the Christmas holiday – and in the midst of a raging pandemic.

A typical Samways load to Europe may comprise a mix of flat fish, shellfish and cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish and octopus). That now entails multiple Catch Certificates being completed by the exporter, along with details of each fishing vessel involved – seven different boats in one instance – and detail of every individual species of fish (possibly as many as twelve) sent in that consignment. And that’s just the start of all the paperwork.

Samways quoted “several hundred” pages of forms to be filled in, each one signed and certified, just for one lorry-load. And much of it must be entered into various IT systems by hand: a long and labour-intensive process. The next stage is to send the paperwork off, to obtain a Customs bar-code to avoid delays at Dover. No bar-code, and you face a huge fine. And of course, truck drivers now need to ensure they can show proof of a negative Covid test before they arrive at Dover. All this takes time – lots of it. Samways had two trucks ready to leave Bridport on Monday at 5am, but they couldn’t leave until Tuesday at 5pm: a full 36 hours later.

Dover – vital for exports as Raab realised… Image by Danny_Hawkwood from Pixabay

After the Dover-Dunkerque ferry crossing there are still difficulties: Samways told me their trucks are now being held between eight and 12 hours for French Customs to examine the paperwork and inspect the loads. Problems with French IT systems and inexperienced Customs staff only compound the delays.

Samways has a proud motto: “Port to plate in 24 hours”. That inspires confidence that the business can and will supply its customers, quickly, reliably and efficiently, with quality, fresh British seafood; that confidence has been a “given” for many companies like Samways, and it’s been earned over many years. If that confidence ebbs away, it’s hard to recover it: customers may look elsewhere for suitable suppliers. Had the UK opted to remain a member of the European Food Safety Authority – as non-EU members Norway and Iceland are – the process of exporting fish and seafood products to the EU might well have been more straightforward: certainly less bureaucratic than the new regime appears to be at present.

 A member of the Samways family gave an interview to  bridport.nub.news on 8 January, saying: “The customers have been very understanding, but then what we’re witnessing is customers don’t have the confidence to buy fish from the UK. It really is saving the UK fish industry which is what it is coming down to now. The fish in UK fell to around 40 per cent of the price it was prior and 40 per cent of the price it was making across Europe”.

Weymouth-registered fishing boat Tom Cat in the harbour at West Bay, Photo by the author

In a leaked letter to trade bodies on 22 September, cabinet minister Michael Gove warned of queues of up to 7000 lorries at Dover unless companies took the necessary steps to ensure that their documentation was correct after the Brexit transition period ended on 31 December. One week into the start of the new arrangements, he stated “… in the weeks ahead, we expect that there will be significant additional disruption – particularly on the Dover-Calais route”. That’s no help or consolation to companies like Samways, who did all they possibly could to prepare.

When West Country Bylines spoke to Samways, their spokesperson said very clearly, “This is not to do with Brexit and how you voted”. That’s a generous viewpoint, many would say. However, in their open letter to MPs, the firm had already stated: “Firstly, we speak on behalf of fishing communities in expressing our disappointment at the final deal agreed with the European Union (EU) over access to British waters. We are not naïve enough to underestimate the impact that a no deal could have on the UK as a whole, but we are equally aware that if fishing communities had not been promised greater control of our waters, the vote may well have been in favour of remain.”

Samways need to find a swift resolution to the bureaucratic and transport difficulties they currently face, which they stress can only be done by working through co-operation on both sides of the Channel, albeit within the constraints of “the deal” which the UK Government agreed with the EU on Christmas Eve. The company are talking specifically to Conservative MPs Chris Loder (West Dorset) and Anthony Mangnall (Totnes), hoping they can bring their influence to bear on the government in order to make the whole matter manageable for them – and for others in the seafood export trade too. As has been widely reported in the media, many UK fishermen and people involved in fish-related industries are facing financial ruin.

When I spoke to Samways they were keen to make clear that there are UK-wide, major issues to be resolved urgently, but that action by the government was even more desperately needed for Scottish fishermen and seafood producers than for themselves.

Nets of shellfish awaiting collection at West Bay, Dorset. Photo by the author

The final paragraph of Samways’s letter to MPs states: “The reality is that seafood auctions, fishermen and businesses like ours may be forced to make a decision as to the viability of trading whilst these complications remain. It is our hope that the UK and European nations will come together and take immediate action on this matter, given what is at stake in the midst of a global pandemic”.

To quote the words of that member of the Samways family to Bridport Nub News: “Hopefully we will find a recipe and work together, because in the end, that’s what it’s all about, coming together.”

Wise words indeed. I trust someone in government hears them before it’s too late.

There is hope that angry complaints by fishermen might yield some results. Responding to a question in the House of Commons on 14 January, DEFRA minister George Eustice hinted at compensation, but talked the problem down as being “a quiet time of year for the trade”. Perhaps the threat by irate Loch Fyne fishermen of a pile of putrid shellfish gracing the gates to Downing St may concentrate minds.

This is clearly anything but the “frictionless trade” which the industry enjoyed before Brexit. Recent disruption to exports has been dismissed by Boris Johnson (giving evidence to the Commons Liaison Committee on 13 Jan) as “teething problems”, but Michel Barnier is quoted in the Financial Times as warning that “post-Brexit border friction is the new normal” under the terms of the thin deal struck with the EU: “there are … obvious, inevitable consequences when you leave the single market and that’s what the British wished to do.”

West Country Bylines would like to thank Samways Fish Merchants and International Transporters Ltd for their assistance. We wish them and their staff well at this difficult time.