Why the stormy Brexit passage of Scottish seafood is calming - David Duguid
The journey of Scottish seafood from port to plate is easing after a stormy few months, though there is still work to be done.
The effects of the Covid pandemic are still being felt and, contrary to the idea that fishing communities are being left to sink or swim, the Scottish Seafood Exports Taskforce, which I chair, has been working hand-in-hand with the industry to secure their future. The taskforce has achieved much thanks to key industry stakeholders who have brought invaluable expertise to bear. But while there is more to do, the taskforce is reaching the end of its natural lifespan.
The reasons are twofold. Firstly the taskforce was always intended to be a specialist, time-limited group, designed not as a talking shop, but to drive solutions. Secondly, the complexity of the industry means we need to consider different issues for different groups in a tailored fashion The taskforce was set up to help seafood businesses The taskforce was set up to help seafood businesses
The public tend to think only of the catchers when they consider fishing, the doughty crews out in mountainous seas winning the harvest from Scotland’s pristine waters and delivering the catch to markets that are done for the day before most of us are even awake. They are, of course, the crucial ‘front end’ of the system. But less well known are the processing and exporting workers who speed the fish to customers here and abroad. And then there’s the aquaculture sector too, including producers whose salmon is sought-after the world over.
The fortnightly taskforce has drawn together key figures from all these sectors with experts and officials from the UK Government and Scottish Government. Uniquely, it also has representation at ministerial level from both Westminster and Holyrood. When it was created, we were clear that it had to be results-focused. Alister Jack, Scottish Secretary of State, and I were determined this would be no mere talking shop. First, the taskforce had to precisely identify the issues. The taskforce grew out of extensive consultation with the seafood industry in the run-up to departing the EU and the Transition Period ending. Although companies carried out much diligent preparation, there were unforeseen problems.
Jimmy Buchan is CEO of the Scottish Seafood Association, a former trawler skipper, and a member of the taskforce’s core membership. He put it: "January 1 was the first day at school for everyone.” Some issues were peculiar, some commonplace. The colour of ink used to stamp French documentation caused trouble, computer glitches meant hold-ups on our side of the Short Straits. We acted with alacrity. To give just one example, exporters told us the computer system for consigning cargo could recognise whole monkfish or monkfish fillets, but nothing else.
We rapidly amended systems to ensure they worked for all cuts of monkfish, including monkfish cheeks and monkfish tails. Other problems were more complex and so the taskforce was created to unpick medium-term issues. UK Government worked in partnership with the Scottish Government, helped arrange for HMRC to embed staff with firms to get customs declarations in order. We made additional veterinary staff available to speed the issuing of export health certificates, which the EU now requires accompany each load. Paperwork was raised time and again as an issue for exporters, even though the insistence on physical forms comes from the EU. Red tape around supplier declarations, a key part of the export process, has been cut such that they now need to be made on a monthly basis rather than for every single consignment.
Covid has deeply impacted restaurant demand and the UK Government has been unstinting in its determination to support a sector, faced with extra pressures as a result of the pandemic. We opened up the Seafood Disruption Support Scheme and the Seafood Response Fund to provide up to an additional £23 million across Britain. Critics like to give the impression that the single market is closed to us. Not so. Our sure-footed trade and co-operation agreement gives us tariff and quota-free access to Europe, the first such deal ever signed by the EU. I was delighted to invite a French trade expert to speak with the taskforce. He was adamant that the top-tier quality of Scottish seafood means it is still very much in demand. When Covid at last loosens its grip, he predicted it will once again be Scottish langoustines on the menu in Michelin-starred restaurants in France.
Britain is now an independent coastal state, which means we take decisions for ourselves, rather than having far-off Brussels run our fisheries. Despite the turbulence of the last few months, I have yet to hear any fishermen declare they want to return to the days when they were under the yoke of the Common Fisheries Policy. It is disappointing that we could not agree fishing opportunities with Norway for this year, but relationships with our neighbours must be balanced. We are only prepared to strike deals that include fair returns for access to our waters and unfortunately, for this year, we could not find an arrangement acceptable to both of us. Discussions will start again in the autumn and I hope we are able to strike a good deal for Britain for 2022.
As MP for Banff and Buchan, where seafood is a key employer, I know how important the sector truly is and believe it has a bright future. Scottish fishermen now have exclusive access to our six to 12-mile zone and we will see catch quotas rising steadily, up 15pc in the first year, up by 25pc in 2025 with the chance for more in 2026. Top of the agenda for the last taskforce meeting in a couple of weeks’ time is how best we keep the dialogue we have opened going, conscious that we are working with busy people in the industry. Such is the diversity within the sector, talking about issues that affect, say, the demersal fleet – catching the likes of cod and haddock – may have little relevance for pelagic fishermen, hunting herring and mackerel.
A less formal structure means our ongoing, detailed, discussions can be precisely tailored and we're talking to the industry about what form they'd like our future discussions to take. Those who win their living from the sea deserve respect and support. We have £100m earmarked to expand the seafood sector and we are already helping this touchstone industry to find new markets beyond the EU. An innovation developed by one producer is fish and chips cleverly marketed in the United States as British pub grub, underscoring that from American homes to chic French bistros – not to mention our own chip shops, homes and restaurants – Scottish seafood is still one of the UK’s great export success stories, and the UK Government will be backing the industry every step of the way.
by David Duguid MP