Very real fears Brexit is destroying Cornwall’s fishing industry

Brexit is destroying Cornwall’s fishing industry and the Duchy’s MPs and the UK government need to step up to save it. This is the view of one Labour member of Cornwall Council after it was revealed that Falmouth’s historic oyster fishery is facing ruin.

The oystermen who fish the Fal Estuary have sold much of their catch – which is caught on vessels powered only by wind and oar – abroad.

Now, however, shellfish producers in the UK have been told by the EU that because of Brexit all shellfish will have to go through a purification process. The ruling could spell the end of the Fal Oystery fishery, fishermen have warned, because it would mean building purifying plants on the banks of the River Fal.

It comes in the same week as Cornwall Council called for action to tackle a growing crisis in the Duchy’s fishing industry. There have even been calls for Environment Minister – and Cornish MP – George Eustice to resign over the issue.

Michael Gove, MP, has now entered the fray, stating the UK reserves its rights to do “whatever is required” to ensure fishermen are “backed up every step of the way” over post-Brexit arrangements.

Fishermen have been collecting the oysters from the Fal estuary using their traditional red-sailed wooden boats for hundreds of years.

Some go to local markets in Cornwall or are sold further afield in the UK – although the Covid lockdown, which has forced the closure of restaurants, has hit UK sales hard. Now a virtual ban on exporting to the EU could be the final nail in the coffin for some producers.

Falmouth’s MP Cherilyn Mackrory said the issue had arisen purely because of the EU abruptly changing the rules. She said the small boat fishermen need to be urgently compensated.

Environment Secretary George Eustice has said Brussels’ decision to place barriers on live UK shellfish exports is “indefensible”.

Oyster dredging in the Fal
(Image: Folk Films/BBC)

Mr Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, insisted there is “no legal barrier” to prevent the trade, and has called on the European Commission to abide by existing regulations.

The introduction of new checks and paperwork since the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 has caused disruption to exports of fresh fish and seafood to the European Union.

In heated exchanges on the issue in the House of Commons on Monday, Conservative South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray said: “I know [Mr Eustice] has tried his best, but the time has now come to show the EU that we will not surrender to their games over these shellfish exports.”

Producers have expressed frustration at the lack of government action, while last month seafood hauliers protested against the Brexit fishing deal by stacking lorries in central London.

Mr Eustice said the Commission changed its position last week, and that prior to that “they had been clear that this was a trade that could continue”. He said in an interview with LBC that the action, which puts a “ban on the trade altogether”, was “quite unexpected and really indefensible”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We wrote to the Commissioner yesterday, we have been in dialogue with them. The truth is there is no legal barrier to this trade continuing, both on animal health grounds and on public health grounds – there is legal provision within existing EU regulations to allow such trade to continue from the UK. We are just asking the EU to abide by their existing regulations and not to seek to change them. They did change their position just last week – prior to that they had been clear that this was a trade that could continue – so we want to work to understand why they are proposing a change at this stage.”

‘He should step aside and let someone else fix this mess’

However, in a twist, the UK’s leading trade body for the shellfish industry told its members that the Government privately accepted that the European Union’s ban on UK shellfish exports was correct.

According to the PoliticsHome website, the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, which represents the majority of shellfish traders in the UK, wrote to members on Monday claiming that in private the Government had now changed its position and had said that the EU’s position “is correct”.

The association said in an email: “We have now received another update from Defra (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) regarding the export of live-bivalve molluscs.

“All along they have told us that they believe the trade in class B animals is legal and that the regulation supports this. They have now changed this position. They now say that they believe on balance that the EU view, that the trade is not legal, is in fact correct. This is in complete contrast to everything they have told us so far.”

The email urged members to ask their European customers to “stress to the Commission that this trade is wanted in the EU” amid warnings that the UK shellfish trade will collapse if the new arrangements remain in place.

Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats’ Home Affairs spokesperson, called on Mr Eustice to resign, telling the website: “Yesterday George Eustice made a statement in Parliament blaming everyone else – today he has thrown in the towel. The seafood industries can no longer have confidence in anything he says.

“He should step aside and let somebody else fix this mess. It is difficult to see how he can remain in his job after this fiasco.”

George Eustice, with Penzance MP Derek Thomas, talking to Newlyn fisherman prior to the 2017 general election
(Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)

French MEP Pierre Karleskind, who chairs the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries, told the Today programme that Brexit was to blame for the issues, but said the reasons do not make sense.

He said: “I have no problem with the fact that we have to find this solution, unfortunately so far the answer that I received from Mrs [Stella] Kyriakides, the [European] commissioner for health, was no. So I am not satisfied so far with this question, and the fact is that the UK waters did not become dirty on December 31 at midnight, so this really doesn’t make any sense – except that we have to find a way to be sure in the long term we will have the insurance that what we import from the UK does satisfy the high standards of quality and of sanitary quality for our consumer.”

Jayne Kirkham, counciillor and former Labour candidate for Truro and Falmouth MP

Jayne Kirkham, Labour councillor for Falmouth’s Smithick ward, told Cornwall Live: “Brexit has destroyed the oystermen’s industry and it doesn’t look like it will recover without help.

“Close to home for me, the Fal Oyster Fishery lost its entire export business on January 1 when we left the EU. As we are now a ‘third country’ we can no longer export unprocessed oysters, scallops and mussels into the EU. We have no means to process the shellfish – that would mean building new purifying plants on the banks of the Fal.

“The Tory Government doesn’t appear to be offering help. The promised £23 million compensation package still hasn’t materialised and time is now of the essence.

“The Fal fishing industry is trying to help itself with a crowdfunder for a hatchery. Amongst other things that could be done to assist is to set up a community accessible purification centre on the Fal. This is something that could be supported by Cornwall Council’s Investment Programme, ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) funding (ironically) or other private investment. It would be an extremely attractive investment opportunity to support a sustainable 400-year-old Cornish industry.

“It is time for Cornwall to step up and save one of our last surviving heritage industries. Cornwall’s MPs and national government seem to be incapable and incompetent of doing this. We are going to have to find the investment needed ourselves.”

A growing crisis

Earlier this week Cornwall Council joined fishing industry leaders in calling on the Government to address a growing crisis in the sector due to the complicated new export rules, a lack of clarity about fishing quotas and an increase in red tape.

The new regulations are costing more money and causing shipments to be delayed or even cancelled, putting significant pressure on an already struggling sector.

The new rules on export hygiene certificates (EHCs) – a requirement before any produce can be exported to the EU – threaten to place additional financial pressures on the industry and Cornwall Council.

The council supports the fishing industry by administering EHCs to enable exports, but cannot bear the costs of delivering this service beyond March 2021 when initial Defra funding is due to run out.

The council’s capacity to deliver the service through its officers will also be under severe strain at that point due to the additional demand.

Cornwall Council Cabinet member for economy Tim Dwelly said: “The challenges faced by Cornwall’s fishing industry are deeply concerning. The current deal with the EU has left the sector with limited gains but mounting red tape and costs.

“Our shellfish producers have been particularly hard hit by these changes, and some businesses are facing the very real possibility of collapse unless urgent action is taken. We’ve been using Defra grant money to help reduce the cost of EHCs to businesses, but this just isn’t sustainable. Additional funding is desperately needed.

“That’s why I’m calling on the Government to step in now and provide additional support. The fishing industry plays a vital role in our economy in Cornwall and immediate action is needed to secure its long-term future.”

Tim Dwelly, Cronwall Council Cabinet member
(Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)

According to the latest figures from the Maritime Management Organisation, the value of fish landed in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in 2019 was £47.5 million. Newlyn was the largest port, with landings of £32.1m, equal to 67.6% of the total. Mevagissey accounted for £2.7m and Looe £2m.

Within the overall catch figures, the value of molluscs such as scallops landed in Cornwall in 2019 was £3.6m or 7.6% of total landings.

It’s not just the shellfish industry that is in dire straits.

A fisherman has had to stop exporting to Europe because of high costs and red tape brought on by Brexit.

Andy Trust said he, alongside much of the the fishing industry, shot himself in the foot by voting for Brexit.
(Image: Andy Trust)

Andy Trust, owner of Ocean Harvest in Looe, told Cornwall Live last week that in a normal year around 30 per cent of his company’s sales would be exports markets in France, Spain and Italy. But ever since the Brexit transition period ended, he has not been able to sell a single fish in an EU country.

“The cost of red tape is just too expensive,” he said. “You can’t sell there as a smaller merchant. For the last 20 years you could put fish in a box, load it into a lorry and off it goes. Now, it’s getting pulled up in Boulogne and turned away for the smallest thing.

“They’re inspecting it, with lorries delayed for three, four, even ten hours – if the fish even make it at all. It’s been a kick in the teeth.” See his full story here.

Michael Gove: ‘Whatever is required’

Mr Gove said this week that the UK reserves its rights to do “whatever is required” to ensure fishermen are “backed up every step of the way” over post-Brexit arrangements.

Ms Murray told the Commons: “Fishing exporters in my constituency are having problems exporting to the EU. We signed a deal that said we could export to the EU.

“What action is [Mr Gove] taking to ensure these exports happen without hindrance and will he start boarding EU vessels in retaliation if we still see this obstructive action on the part of the European Union?”

Mr Gove responded: “What we do need to do is make sure that any bureaucratic obstructions which individual EU member states may still be applying are lifted and of course as I mentioned … we will reserve our rights as an independent coastal state to do whatever is required in order to make sure that our fishermen are backed up every step of the way.”

Two of Cornwall’s Tory MPs challenged Mr Eustice in Parliament over the fishing concerns last month.

Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, and Ms Murray used a debate on the fishing industry and the EU trade and co-operation agreement to raise concerns highlighted by their constituents.

Mr Double said: “The secretary of state will be aware that fishermen in Cornwall have been very disappointed with the agreement reached on quota with the EU, and the fact that its vessels can still fish in our six to 12-mile limit.

“There is real concern that our inshore fleet, which makes up the vast majority of vessels in my constituency, will benefit little from this new deal, so what assurances can he give the fishermen of Mevagissey and Newquay, as well as fishermen across Cornwall, that the Government will be working with our inshore fleet to make sure it can benefit as much as possible from this new deal, and that those fishermen will be in a good position to increase their share of the quota when we come to the end of the adjustment period?”

Mr Eustice responded: “We left the London fisheries convention and gave notice under that because it is our intention that the six to 12-mile zone should be reserved predominantly for our own fishermen, and at the end of the five and a half years, that is exactly what we will be seeking to achieve.

“There are some uplifts for fishermen in the Celtic sea, and in particular those in Cornwall – haddock has moved from 10% to 20% – and the Celtic sea is also an area that often had its fishing interests affected by the ability of Ireland to invoke Hague preference, which depleted our share of some stocks, notably cod. With the absence of Hague preference, there will be some other uplifts in those areas.”

A fishing boat makes its return to Newlyn harbour
(Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)

Mrs Murray, a supporter of Brexit, called for the Government to provide compensation to fishing businesses impacted by the new arrangements.

She said: “My constituent Andrew Trust, the owner of Ocean Harvest, is finding that the high cost of border control charges, export health certificates, the need for a fiscal representative in France and the uncertainty that his fish will reach the buyer in the EU poses a real threat to his business. What compensating measures will the Government put in place?”

Mr Eustice replied: “The key thing is to get this process working more smoothly, and that requires traders to familiarise themselves with it. I have also spoken to fish operators in my constituency, which is in that part of the world. Those who have experience of exporting more widely around the world, including to the far east, are quite familiar with these processes and are coping with them, but for those businesses for which this is new, it will take time to get used to the paperwork.”

After the debate Mr Double said: “I have already met with representatives of the fishing community to discuss concerns they have with the deal and was keen to raise them at the top of Government as soon as possible.

“I was pleased to hear the secretary of state confirm in his reply that it is our intention that the six to 12 mile zone should be reserved predominantly for our own fishermen and that at the end of the adjustment period that is what we will be seeking to achieve. I remain committed to working with our fishing communities to ensure they are supported both during and after this time.”

Even before the Brexit changes came into effect at the start of 2021, a number of Cornish fishing businesses were concerned new rules would mark the ‘final straw’ for an already struggling industry.

Newlyn Fish Auction (W Stevenson and Sons), Leigh George, managing director of Ocean Fish in Roche, Mark Greet, managing director of Falfish Ltd in Redruth, Godfrey Adams, of Trelawney Fish In Newlyn, Andrew Trust, director of Ocean Harvest in Looe and Bluesail Fish in Looe, all wrote to Mr Eustice with concerns last November.

In a jointly signed letter, they said: “We are writing collectively to ask that Defra and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) urgently reconsider the arrangements being put in place for validating catch certificates for fish that are exported abroad.

“The MMO’s proposals would have a seriously detrimental effect on fish exports from the UK and on the future viability of large segments of the catching sector, auction houses, merchants and processors.

“It could be the final straw for many businesses which are still facing extremely tough times because of the pandemic. This affects all sectors and just about all types and sizes of vessels.”

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