A gloomy prognosis for post-Brexit UK seafood sector

In the run-up to Easter we will start to get a better idea of the longer-term impact of the post-Brexit regime on the UK fishing and seafood trade – but things don’t look good. After Christmas, Easter is the period of second highest demand – in the UK as well as Europe – when a higher proportion of sales are of the higher value species and products (such as live shellfish) – particularly on the continent, if you can get product to market. 

The first two to three months of any year are typically the low season for fishing (excluding large volume small pelagic fisheries, most of which is stored frozen for trade or later processing), and the period of lowest market demand. It is a time for repairs and maintenance and taking stock. Persistent poor weather plus low market demand keep much of the fleet confined to harbour, though tight supply can offer the occasional strong prices for those who do get to sea.

Some of the logistical and compliance problems that have plagued fresh and live seafood exports from the UK into the European market in this early part of the year will have been sorted or smoothed out – but this will inevitably leave and expose the more intractable problems that cannot be so easily smoothed or will not go away. The damage comes with the combination of the significantly raised costs of exporting (a chunk of which is immovable – sanitary and phytosanitary inspection, more border inspections, more cumbersome shipping documentation) and some structural substitution in where continental markets source product.

The industry will undoubtedly adapt to the changed circumstances – but this will not be quick (1 to 5 years) and will come at considerable cost – in loss of jobs and livelihoods, very poor returns on any recent investments, a big hit on profits, and pressure to call on scarce reserves. There is precious little upside to this.

And still there is the balancing act in who has entitlement and access to UK fishing quota. Industry and government have been toying with change to the existing quota systems and the role of the POs and how quota is allocated to the non-sector (mainly under-10m vessels). But very little has changed – yet. Will it come – seems less and less likely? Yet there are signs of shifting positions amongst the different Fish Producer Organisations as vessel owners have manoeuvred to limit risk and look for a win-win outcome regardless of the Brexit deal (including consolidation – the Fleetwood PO is now embraced with ANIFPO – and specialisation – the new Western PO has formed, mainly taking membership from the SWFPO).

Meanwhile the Coastal PO – formed under Co-operatives and Community Benefit Societies legislation to represent non-sector / small scale interests – is still struggling to achieve full recognition as a PO and to acquire quota. Which raises one of the biggest disasters of the Brexit deal – the continued inattention of the British government to the persistently under-valued contribution of the UK’s inshore and small-scale fishermen to the fabric and economies of our coastal communities. It has failed to utilise the cover of Brexit to “take back control” of fishing in the UK territorial waters out to 12nm, which it might possibly have achieved by negotiating significant reduction in the historical rights of access of French, Belgium, Dutch, Irish and other fleets to fish the 6 to 12 nm zone. And the government could do more to better manage the fishing of this zone to favour the marine environment and low impact fishing (already totally under its control). The UK government has and always has had full jurisdiction over management of territorial waters out to 12nm – little to do with the EU or Brexit. And shellfish, the key catch from much of this zone is not subject to quota management – with the one exception of nephrops / scampi fisheries (but since 75% of all nephrops catches are taken in UK waters, the impact of nephrops quota is arguably a UK matter anyway). Which makes the Brexit induced impediments and delays to exports of live shellfish all the more ridiculous, as well as ruinous to many.

It will indeed be interesting to see how the industry and this and future governments pick up the pieces – but there are precious few winners here, and the livelihoods of many put into a bit of a tailspin.