'British seafood suppliers are going to have to find another market in the restaurant industry'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Since January 1st, live bivalve molluscs can no longer be exported from the UK to the EU for processing. compounded with the effects of Brexit, this puts the British fishing industry in a spot of trouble.

The law is unequivocal: scallops, oysters, mussels, cockles, clams and the likes cannot be imported from outside the bloc for processing and must be processed prior to transport to be sold in the EU.

The European Commission has confirmed - despite the UK government's claims - that the ban would be permanent, meaning that the only alternatives, other than a renegotiation leading to an exception for the UK. is to ramp up UK purification and processing capabilities.

But according to Johnny Godden, founder of celebrated seafood supplier Flying Fish, pushing sales of UK shellfish to British resellers and restaurants could offer another solution to the multi-faceted problem.

Brexit and the seafood industry - where to go now?

Speaking more generally of Brexit and its impact on the British seafood industry, he said: "The only way it will work is if everybody buys British. 

"If all the people who buy langoustines or hand-dived scallops that get shipped over to Spain for huge amounts of money, chefs in the UK can't buy that stuff. They can't afford it because we can't compete with the Europeans. 

The ongoing difficulties to export to the EU, he said, "will benefit us [at Flying Fish] in the long run because our markets will have more areas that we can buy fish from without it being completely outpriced for the British public to enjoy.

"If Brexit is to work, if we're a sovereign state, we have to buy within." 

Recalling when ex-PM David Cameron boasted about exporting pigs to China only to import pork from Denmark, he said: "it just makes no sense." 

"You get these nutters who buy Canadian roller scallops rather than lovely Scottish hand-dived scallops because all of our Scottish hand-dived scallops are going to Europe."

"If British people buy British produce and maybe pay a little more for the quality - we'll be fine." 

Pivot, pivot, pivot

As for the suppliers who exclusively sell to Europe, he said: "They pay lots of money so all the fishermen land their fish or shellfish there. They now don't have a market.

“I feel really sorry for these people because a lot of investment has gone into supplying Europe.”

But not one to be discouraged, he said, "all of these people have got to find another market - and the market they're going to have to find is the UK restaurant market. 

"People at home can't spend all their money on lovely big lobsters, it's naturally going to find its way to chefs and restaurants. 

"These people are now going to have to get their thinking caps on." 

Will a 'pivot' be enough to save jobs and livelihoods?

As has been shown by the restaurants trying to do their to support British fishing, the hospitality industry has some role to play in reinvigorating the British market. 

The Rick Stein group, which, hearing of a company who had £50,000 worth of shellfish held up at the French border on its way to Spain for 30 hours as a result of Brexit, decided to buy produce from the Pembrokeshire-based shellfish wholesaler to sell in Cornwall. 

Company owner Nerys Edwards told the BBC that while the restaurant group's trade alone won't replace the shellfish it sends to Spain, it will make a difference to her family business and suppliers.

However uplifting and inspirational this may be, Alaisdair Hughson, director of Keltic Seafare in Scotland, is not convinced that looking inwards will create enough revenue to uplift struggling businesses - and dismisses the idea that the British market will be willing to pay the same price as the EU, the lowest threshold allowing many suppliers and fishing businesses to survive.

"On the French markets they're willing to pay that extra bit more for the produce," he explained, and the likelihood of the British market size increasing enough to compensate is "almost impossible." 

"In Europe, they see the value of the product - it's healthy, high in protein," acquiescing to the point that it is also "delicious, of course, when it's prepared right." 

"But here in the UK, the market is much smaller." 

Though he would love for Keltic to sell more produce throughout the UK, he said, "you could draw a 50-mile radius around London" when it comes to locations able to pay for the best Scottish seafood available. 

"The London guys are willing to pay that bit more than the guys up North of the border." 

"At the end of the day, we can't sell it cheap.

"We have to get the best price that we can for it  so we can keep our company in a good position and pay our hard-working suppliers a competitive price."

Holding government accountable for the Brexit deal

The government, who he says disregarded calls from a unified voice in the industry to put safeguards in place prior to our leaving the European customs union, not only needs to return to the negotiating table, but must put measures in place to boost and protect the industry from within.

"It can't be an aspiration unless government can provide some form of dispensation," he said, as "the consequences [of Brexit] are already catastrophic" for many fishing businesses and processing firms. 

The effects will bite hardest  in the fishing villages, where, he said, "that's all they've got," leading many to simply pack their generations-old businesses in. 

"If you look at bankruptcies of firms or firms getting put under, the peak for that is March-April, because that's when accounting periods are looked at and that's when people are making decisions." 

"I think we're already going to see a number of firms folding this year - be they small family fishing businesses or larger process-despatch businesses," he said, as well as an older generation in the sector who may just decide to cut their careers short. 

"Some people will have no choice but to take on debt, soldier on and hope for the best, I think that's going to have to be the solution." 

"It's like jumping into the abyss - you just don't know if it's going to come good, and when."

Selling direct to consumers

That having been said, the more end-user oriented business model is one that many have had to adopt as a result of the pandemic, and one which Alaisdair expects Keltic will continue to explore in the future.

"We are changing our tactics a bit," he explained, with plans to set up a fishmongers in Edinburgh's St James' Quarter, "hopefully that will help to bolster things, get the product out there and also get the name out there."

The consumer base is one that they will have to branch out to, he said, "because we need to build resilience in the company." 

"The seafood is there - all through lockdown the guys have been allowed and able to go and fish and we've had a very good winter for fish." 

"It's just so galling that there are people out there wanting to eat it and we weren't in a position to get it to them." 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 5th February 2021

'British seafood suppliers are going to have to find another market in the restaurant industry'