Minister makes fishy suggestion on water quality

Recent remarks by fisheries minister Victoria Prentis suggest the government is pressuring the Food Standards Agency to change its water quality assessment for the Fal estuary and other waters used by shellfish producers.  Cornwall Green Party has described this suggestion as “frankly outrageous”.

On Wednesday 12 May, the DEFRA minister responsible for fisheries, Victoria Prentis, gave a keynote speech to the annual conference of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain.

Ms Prentis has been facing demands from shellfish producers that DEFRA apologise for the confused and contradictory advice it has given them on the severe problems they’ve faced since Brexit. Her speech attempted to explain what the government will do to address the situation.

The main problem for the oyster fishermen of the Fal estuary in Cornwall is that the EU does not allow imports of live shellfish from third countries unless these come from waters with the highest water cleanliness classification – Class A waters. Pollution of the Fal by human waste and agricultural run-off means that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has determined that its waters do not meet this standard. 

But Ms Prentis suggested in her speech that the government is putting pressure on the FSA to change its classification of such waters, saying:

“The FSA has agreed that there is potential scope for change to ensure that classifications are awarded in a proportionate and pragmatic way.”

Karen La Borde, joint co-ordinator for Cornwall Green Party, said: “The suggestion that the FSA should alter its assessment of water quality to suit the government’s convenience is, frankly, outrageous. The FSA has a duty to make such assessments on a purely scientific basis, and it has previously done so scrupulously.

“Any suggestion that scientific assessments should be adjusted to save face for the government casts doubt over the validity of the FSA’s vital work in protecting people from environmental health risks. It is also unlikely to impress EU officials, who need to be sure that shellfish imports from the UK meet established standards for third countries.

“It also raises the question of what Ms Prentis meant in her speech when she said that DEFRA is working to ‘streamline the regulatory framework’.”

The FSA assesses water quality on the River Fal as Class B because it has found significant quantities of faecal bacteria in these waters. These come from discharges of human sewage and run-off of animal manure from agricultural land.

Karen La Borde said: “The solution to this is not to push the FSA into altering its honest, scientifically based assessments, but to stop the discharge of such waste into these waters.”

In February, oyster fisherman Tom Haward, whose family has been working the waters of the Fal for eight generations, said that the fishermen had raised the export problem with the government at least two years ago, but that their voices had been ignored:

“George Eustice is lying when he says it was a surprise and when it is being peddled as an ‘overnight ban’. When he was fisheries minister he was aware of these worries. If I saw this coming then Johnson, et al should have… We are in this mess because those elected to serve us were too lazy and arrogant to read the small print because they wanted adulation without the work.”

Fisheries minister Victoria Prentis has also threatened to bring legal action against the EU to force it to agree to imports of live shellfish from substandard water, and has said that the UK government will negotiate with individual EU countries to persuade them to do the same. This strongly suggests that Boris Johnson’s government has still not understood that EU member states follow a commonly agreed rules-based system – the same failure of comprehension that led to such a poor outcome to the UK-EU trade talks.

Karen La Borde said:

“Ms Prentis needs to come clean with the oyster-fishers of the Fal and admit that the government did not understand the implications of its own Brexit deal. This is what happens when you tear up 40 years of carefully negotiated trade arrangements without a clue about what will replace them. 

“The Fal oyster fishery is one of the most environmentally sustainable in the world, and we very much hope that it’s able to continue operating despite the damage that’s been done to it by Boris Johnson’s government.“

Depuration of oysters and other shellfish in Cornwall, in other words cleansing them of impurities in tanks of clean seawater, has been suggested as a possible answer to the export problem. But shellfish producers have said this not a long-term solution, as depuration shortens the shelf-life of the shellfish and would mean many arriving in Europe dead or inedible. And, as Tom Haward has pointed out: “Many small shellfish businesses don’t have the money needed to build a depuration plant. £100k cost for a small plant wouldn’t provide the depuration capacity some companies need.”

Opening up shorter export routes from Cornwall to France, so that purified Cornish shellfish could reach end-users more quickly, could perhaps provide a way forward. This was something that the previous Cornwall Council administration was exploring with Brittany Ferries, though it is not clear whether the incoming Conservative administration will pursue it.

Karen La Borde said:

“Until a workable solution is found, the government needs to be giving financial support to the shellfisheries they’ve let down so badly. But the only lasting solution to this problem is for DEFRA and the Environment Agency to make sure that sewage and slurry don’t continue to find their way into our rivers. And you can’t do that by sleight of hand or by pressuring the FSA to muddy the scientific waters.”