“It’s not MY fault”: the fishy blame game

The “whiffy-fish-to-the-EU” disaster story just goes on and on, doesn’t it? Or maybe that should read “no-fish-to-the-EU”. Most people must know now that those involved in fishing are angry – very angry – that their valuable seafood is not getting to customers in the EU on time, if at all. Many boats are laid up, a shellfish industry worth around £430m a year in 2019 is all but moribund in Scotland, fishermen are losing their livelihoods and businesses are on the brink of insolvency.

On 15 January Elspeth MacDonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, wrote to the prime minister:

“Our industry is facing mounting financial losses. Many fishing vessels are tied to the quay wall. Of the others that can go to sea, some are now making a 72-hour round trip to land fish in Denmark, as the only way to guarantee that their catch will make a fair price and actually find its way to market while still fresh enough to meet customer demands. This, on top of the desperately poor deal on fisheries in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, is not what you promised the fishing industry.”

As I wrote in Fish – it used to be so easy…  no matter how well prepared they were, companies involved in fish and seafood exports to the EU are now facing difficulties they did not have before 1 January: falling prices, a costly mountain of paperwork and additional ‘red tape’, customs delays at UK and French ports, additional phyto-sanitary inspections and certification by vets, lowering morale, falling customer confidence – and uncertainty about the future of the industry.

Exporters from Devon and Scotland took their grievances to London on 18 January, driving 24 large trucks around Westminster, some displaying messages to the politicians the fishermen blame for their recent misfortunes: “Brexit carnage!” “Government incompetence destroying shellfish industry!”

It has yet to be seen if the publicity will have any real effect. Other protests have included a heartfelt video tweet  from Jamie McMilllan of Loch Fyne Langoustines, threatening to dump rotting shellfish at the gates to Downing Street; his anger and desperation were clear for all to see.

The government knows about this lamentable situation. On 4 January, Arnold Locker, chairman of Locker Trawlers in Whitby and a former chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said there had been many meetings with DEFRA but that key Brexiteers had betrayed the fishing community: George Eustice, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson “knew exactly what they were doing when they devastated coastal communities.”

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post on 3 January he said: 

“This was billed as getting fishing back and the fleet back and our coastal communities back. If I’ve listened to George Eustice once I must have listened to him 100 times. We have even held meetings with Defra on how they were going to share out all the extra fish. What extra fish? There isn’t any. Certainly not for the port of Whitby or Scarborough. We will be worse off in January than what we were when we started as a full member of the EU”.

Scottish fishing boats and creels. Photo by JTMorkis on Pixabay

On 14 January DEFRA Secretary of State and Camborne and Redruth MP George Eustice faced questions from Cornish MPs Steve Double and Sheryll Murray ‒ amongst other MPs with fishing constituencies ‒ about this disastrous situation. Eustice’s response was characteristically dismissive. “They are only teething problems. When people get used to using the paperwork, goods will flow normally.” A one-time UKIP candidate for the European Parliament, he couldn’t resist a poke at the EU too, a reaffirmation of his long-held Euro-sceptic views: “Of course, it would have been open to the EU to offer us a grace period, just as we have had a grace period for its goods coming to us. For reasons known only to the EU and the way that it approaches its particular regulations, that was not something that it was willing to do, so we have had to work with these arrangements from a standing start and, clearly, that causes certain issues.” Thanks George, very helpful.

Shortly after the UK-EU trade deal was agreed just before Christmas, Johnson announced a £100m stimulus fund, to modernise the UK fishing industry before the five-year fishing transition period with the EU ceases on 30 June 2026. There is talk of new boats, improved port and processing facilities. Over half the UK fishing fleet of 6000 vessels is over 30 years old. With typical new-build trawler costs of many millions per boat, that money won’t go far.

Apart from that, all will then be well with UK fishing: we’ll be taking back full control of our waters, as the advocates of Brexit promised. Except it won’t be quite that simple, if you look at the terms of the trade deal. The BBC‘s “Fact Check” has the worrying small print: Brexit trade deal: What does it mean for fishing?

After the protests on 18 January Johnson suddenly promised a £23m compensation scheme for the seafood industry. He told reporters:

“I sympathise very, very much, and I understand their frustrations and I understand their concerns – but obviously things have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately the demand in restaurants on the Continent for UK fish has not been what it was before the pandemic…”.

He went on: “Where businesses through no fault of their own have faced difficulties exporting where there is a genuine, willing buyer, there is a £23 million fund to help out”.

That’s all right then. Of course he really meant: ‘We might help, so long as you can prove the crap you’re dealing with isn’t your fault and you can prove you have a buyer waiting. But it’s all down to COVID anyway. Nothing to do with Brexit. Or me’.

This is roundly dismissed by those in the industry. West Country Bylines spoke to Mark Moore from Dartmouth Crab Company Ltd, who had a truck in the Westminster protest. They’re a big player in the export of live shellfish to the EU, with nine trucks in their fleet and four fishing vessels. He absolutely refutes government assertions that the current problems are only “teething” ones and that demand is low; he told me that although demand for shellfish in the EU is seasonal, peaking between July and Christmas, there is “never enough supply to satisfy the demand”.

He also dismissed the suggestion that the pandemic is at the root of the problems, saying that the European market was recovering, partly by extending sales to supermarkets. He stressed that the current problems were:

  • the sheer volume of paperwork each consignment now needs, which is not compatible with the strict timescales required;
  • that the government IT systems are complex, labour-intensive and inefficient;
  • that there is a reliance on paper copies of all documentation at the ports (so much so that any delayed papers sometimes have to be sent by ‘courier’ to catch up with the trucks, and some lorries are actually being equipped with on-board printers); and
  • the reliance on the accuracy and responsiveness of French customs agents.

The costs are considerable: he told me that their veterinary certifications alone can cost up to £240 for each consignment – and that is assuming a vet is available (their nearest vet is 45 miles away) and willing to carry out the task.

“Crabs” by foilman is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Like Samways in Bridport, Mr Moore says his company had been expecting additional paperwork and costs after the UK’s departure from the EU and was very well prepared, and he described the effects on Scottish fishermen and producers as “far worse”. Like Samways, his company are working closely with their local MP, hoping pressure can be put on the government by that route. If, however, Mr Moore’s assessment of George Eustice as “woefully inadequate” is a just one, the omens are not good. Mr Moore told me that Eustice refused to appear on a live regional BBC television programme with him to discuss the fishing issue; perhaps Eustice realises that the government of which he is part has some serious questions to answer.

Interestingly, Mr Moore also said that they don’t want subsidy through ad hoc compensation packages: they want UK fishing to be able to return to the self-sustaining industry that it was until 1 January. The compensation might be helpful in the very short term, he said, but doesn’t address the fundamental problem which has become clear since 1 January: that the “deal” has made business hugely more difficult than it was. He also predicts that when the UK’s current ‘light touch’ customs approach becomes stricter later this year and importers to the UK face the same problems, then the whole issue will have to be properly addressed by government and that, he said, can only be done by renegotiation.

An interesting postscript: have you heard about the huge Hull-based freezer-trawler “Kirkella”? It’s 270 feet long and was only built in 2018. It can’t leave its home port because the UK no longer has a post-Brexit fishing agreement with Norway. We had one previously through our EU membership, but not now – not till a separate deal is negotiated. Not a big deal, you say? That one vessel used to catch up to 2.3 million cod and haddock in each week-long trip in waters off the coasts of Norway, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and according to   Hull Live (hulldailymail.co.uk) supplied about 10% of all the fish sold in UK fish and chip shops.

Yet another example of “the Brexit Dividend”?