“It’s business, Boris…but not as we knew it”

Company boat ‘Holly Mai’ – purpose-designed vessel for mussel aquaculture. Photo by kind permission of Offshore Shellfish Ltd.

Imagine that you run an innovative, environmentally sustainable enterprise which employs your wife, your kids and ten local people. You’ve been in the business for over 30 years and you know exactly what you’re doing. You and your family have invested decades’ worth of emotion, aspiration, knowledge and money in it. You’ve won the industry’s highest awards and accolades, whilst much of your work has been carried out in conjunction with respected marine scientists at a leading university. You’re proud of your business and you want to expand it.

You have a long-standing and excellent relationship with your principal customer, to whom you send 95 per cent of your product. You knew Brexit was coming, even though you voted ‘Remain’ and you did everything you possibly could to prepare for it. Endless meetings, questions, reading all the new documentation, voicing your concerns to government officials and to ministers. You were given assurances again and again by DEFRA officials and in writing from George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that you could continue your business and trade with your customer just as you always had, even in the event of a ‘hard’, no-deal Brexit.

Brexit finally ‘got done’ and the Transition Phase ended at midnight on 31 December 2020. Effectively, the UK was now a ‘third country’ as far as the EU was concerned. And your principal customer was still in the Netherlands.

Brexit reality bites

I wrote the sorry tale of Brixham-based Offshore Shellfish Ltd for West Country Voices in April 2021. After trying in vain to send two trucks filled with fresh mussels to their customer at the start of January 2021, trade came to a very unwelcome and abrupt halt. The problem? Despite the promises made by DEFRA, EU rules were being applied to the UK as a non EU country. Quelle surprise!! Before Brexit, shellfish could be purified anywhere within the bloc, because the UK was a member of the European ‘club’ and the trade was therefore not considered to be an export.  

Post-Brexit, the UK was treated as any other non-EU country. Shellfish exports from all non-EU countries have to originate from Class A waters, or be purified before the export takes place. Much as it may seem to be an arcane argument, interpretation of water quality classification differs between the UK and Europe, and unpurified mussels originating from the UK’s Class B waters are deemed to be unacceptable in Europe.

Offshore Shellfish Ltd was just one of many UK shellfish exporters which saw trade collapse overnight and was clearly facing near-catastrophe, since 89 per cent of all UK shellfish was exported – most of it to Europe.

Blame game

Cue the blame game. George Eustice (yes, him again) claimed in Parliament on 8 February 2020 that the UK government had been given assurances by the EU that the trade in most types of shellfish could continue unhindered after the end of the Brexit Transition Phase, albeit with a slight delay until April for some species due to new documentation requirements. Not so, said the EU – we’ve changed nothing and it’s a permanent ban on anything coming from the UK’s Class B waters. In private and only two days later, despite Eustice’s aggrieved and belligerent  tone, the Shellfish Association of Great Britain were told privately by DEFRA that the EU’s position was correct. All of which was of no help whatsoever to an industry which was seeing its income – but not its overheads – dry up by the hour.  

Pressure from the entire fishing industry grew rapidly as it was faced with loss of income and – for the ‘lucky ones’ who were able to stay in business – a costly mountain of new paperwork and bureaucracy. Trucks from all over the UK converged on Westminster in a coordinated protest on 18 January 2021. The ONS reported that fish and shellfish exports fell by 83 per cent in January 2021. The government blamed ‘stockpiling’ and ‘teething problems’ but the matter dragged on, seemingly without a resolution.  

On 9 February, the government offered the Seafood Distribution Support Scheme, worth £23m, to assist businesses which suffered financial losses because of export delays to fresh fish and shellfish to the EU during January 2021; they would be paid retrospectively. With even a small depuration (purification) tank costing upwards of £100,000, there was talk of government money being offered for facilities to be established in the UK to aid shellfish exporters. This idea was soon dismissed by those in the industry as being unworkable and pointless – the tanks would need to be vast to cope with the quantities involved, the shelf-life of the animals would be much reduced before reaching European markets, and once they’d been delivered to the customer, they would need further depuration which would over-stress the creatures and kill them.  

Rope-cultured mussels growing in Lyme Bay. Photo by kind permission of Offshore Shellfish Ltd.

Responding to the industry’s ever-louder cries for help, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) looked at reclassifying some areas of the UK waters to ascertain if they could change from Class B to Class A: the purest. In truth, the fishing and shellfish industry had been trying for more than 30 years to obtain such a review. Studying the contaminant criteria, testing methodologies and the relevant UK and EU regulations and directives, in late April 2021 the FSA upgraded 11 of 266 areas of UK waters to Class A status; these are off the coasts of Devon, Cornwall, Kent, Essex and Northumberland. This provided little joy for shellfish growers as none of the upgraded sites supported significant export businesses.When Ispoke toNicki Holmyard, Communications Manager for Offshore Shellfish, in early April 2021, the situation for their business looked desperate: unless the situation was resolved by September, she talked of legal action being taken against the Government for maladministration and for misleading the shellfish industry so comprehensively.

I spoke to her again this week, nine months later. Offshore Shellfish Ltd have survived. They didn’t see any money coming in until the end of August, by which time, thanks to the late reclassification to Class A of one of their farm sites in Lyme Bay, they’d been able to resume their export of rope-cultured, organic mussels to their customer in the Netherlands. They have dropped the threat of legal action against DEFRA as being too costly, and it could also harm any future relationship with important government agencies. Depending on the harvest, they still export one or two 20-tonne trucks from Brixham every day, each loaded with bags of mussels for depuration at their customer’s base in the Netherlands.

Red tape increased:

But the amount of new documentation and the time involved is considerable now in this post-Brexit world: three detailed forms to be filled in by hand, an Animal Health Certificate – completed by a qualified veterinary surgeon – obtained for each consignment, then a seal fixed to the doors of every lorry. They can only hope that it gets to its destination overnight without any hold-ups: 10-20 per cent of the trips result in an unscheduled Customs inspection in France, with the attendant risk of the driver going ‘out of hours’, necessitating urgent phone calls by the UK haulier to arrange a second driver or another truck in France. On one occasion, UK Customs carried out a random search and didn’t complete the paperwork correctly for their French counterparts: this was not only an unwelcome delay, but the consignment of mussels was wasted.

None of this was required before Brexit and it has all added cost to the business: increased admin time, the acquisition of special EU-acceptable pallets, two sets of customs agents, and higher transport costs because of the additional time it takes to go via the Border Inspection Post in Boulogne-sur-Mer. This equates to a cost increase of around 30% per load, which the company has had to absorb.

How does Nicki Holmyard feel about all this? “We’re getting by – just. Sometimes it feels like we’re clinging on by our fingertips.”  And there’s always the doubt, the worry that the business may not survive, let alone expand as had been the plan. The testing for contaminants in the waters in which the mussels grow is carried out on a month-by-month basis, with no guarantee of the result, so they can never plan anything long-term. Class A criteria met one month does not mean the same for the following month. Investors are understandably nervous.

I ask her about local political help, specifically from their MP, Anthony Mangnall (Conservative member for Totnes). “He’s been out on the boat with us – he gets it”, Nicki replied. He’s keen to start an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Aquaculture, to highlight the concerns and interests of the industry. Since the introduction of the much-publicised Environment Bill in late 2021 there’s now the possibility of continued contamination from increased untreated sewage discharges, which may affect public health, water classification and the livelihoods of some shellfish producers.       

Although aquaculture is facing new problems, it’s not such bad news for some fishermen: Brixham Fish Market (which received £2 million in EU funding for improvements to facilities) is now the most profitable in the UK, and surprisingly – despite Brexit and Covid – actually recorded its highest-ever annual sales in 2021; they put this down to diversifying markets and strong UK sales, even though 70 per cent of the catch landed there still goes to Europe. But all this is of little consolation to Offshore Shellfish, a Devon-based family firm which is doing all it can to continue trading in a business world blighted by Brexit bureaucracy, additional cost and uncertainty.    

In April 2016, then-Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor Michael Gove told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that the UK would be “part of a free trade zone … with full access to the European market” after Brexit. In your role as a spokesman for Vote Leave, Mr Gove, did you ever realise the real cost and implications of Brexit for businesses such as Offshore Shellfish Ltd?

Or maybe you and your mates just hoped no-one would notice.    

I would like to thank Offshore Shellfish Ltd for their assistance in writing this article. West Country Voices wishes the Holmyard family and their team well, for 2022 and beyond.