Some British mussel exporters are facing a seventh month of no income after a technicality in the Brexit deal means they can no longer export to their primary markets in the EU.
Expansion in what is one of the very few sustainable seafoods is now on hold, as investors and customers lack confidence in the future of the sector, while livelihoods also hang in the balance.
It comes down to a technicality in trade rules, which exporters were aware of prior to the start of this year and the new trading regime, relating to the classification of British waters. No live shellfish from Class B waters can be exported from a third country to the EU, where the appetite for mussels far outweighs the English market.
Ahead of the change in rules, exporters were assured by the government they would be allowed to continue trading. When this proved not to be the case, Defra and the environment minister George Eustice have insisted the EU “changed their position”.
Asked by Wicked Leeks to comment on the situation at a press conference last week, he said:” The issue here is the European Union had until December last year told us that trade could continue for those products going for further depuration process.
“They even showed us the export health certificate for farmed mussels, and then they suddenly changed their position in February and said they weren’t able to trade after all.”
Speaking elsewhere, Eustice has also dismissed the findings of a report by the Efra Committee, a joint parliamentary committee that scrutinises the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), which found closer talks with exporters would have allowed the industry to point out the issue.
“This resulted in the government making a mistake in how the commission would apply the relevant regulations, leading to the industry being compromised,” the committee said.
Eustice said the government is looking into purification facilities that would allow shellfish to be depurated and then exported, but exporters have dismissed this as a feasible solution.
He said: “We’re also looking at further depuration facilities for oysters. When it comes to mussels, we may have to look at alternative markets and there may be less of an export market for that particular sector.”
John Holmyard, managing director of Offshore Shellfish, a Devon mussel producer which produces around a half of England’s mussels, said: “Can you imagine if half of all the dairy farmers in England were told with no notice that they can no longer sell raw milk to a processor and they would have to pasteurise all of it first, and that the customer does not actually want to buy pasteurised milk and they will just get raw milk elsewhere. That is the situation we are in.
“We have had no income all year and the compensation promised to us for covering running costs for three months was capped at £10,000 which is about 2 days of costs for us so that is another promise broken.”
Chief executive of SAGB, David Jarrad, said: “The Live Bivalve exporters (to the EU) have been going through a torrid time, since Jan 1st this year. Initially we were assured by Defra that trade would be able to continue, but as it turns out that advice was wrong.
“These are in very serious times, when food security is at the fore. Shellfish aquaculture produces a good quality healthy protein, in an eco-friendly manner and that has wider ecosystem benefits (carbon/nitrogen sinks, water cleansing etc). However we are in danger of losing this entire sector if they are not supported,” he said.
While both Jarrad and Holmyard said more UK consumption of shellfish would be welcomed, they hold out little hope for this due to a lack of independent fishmongers, and cultural appetites for white fish. “We would all like UK consumers to eat more UK shellfish both now and in the longer term, but with only about 15 per cent of UK production staying in the UK, we would need a monumental shift in habits to save the sector,” said Jarrad.
Holmyard added: “UK supermarkets have most of the fresh fish outlets and they are very focused on price and shelf life and are notoriously bad at looking after the mussels. European supermarkets focus on freshness, quality and rapid turnover and they accept seasonality. This is why we sell in Europe.”
Exporters are now waiting a delayed decision by the Food Standards Agency to reclassify British waters to allow them to restart their businesses ahead of the key mussel producing season in October.
“The reality of the situation is that it is less about what we have lost in terms of harvest and mostly about not being able to plan for the future,” Holmyard said. “As farmers we are at the beginning of a supply chain which is three to four stages long. This means loss of confidence in us by customers and investors and we are still in a very shaky position.”