There’s a bitter north-easterly wind whipping the waves as Chris Ranger moors his ageing sailboat and steps off with a small net of oysters.
‘This time last year, I’d be selling 1,500 of these for Valentine’s Day,’ he says. ‘But Covid has closed the UK market and Brexit has ended EU exports. I’m down to a few web sales, perhaps 300 oysters. To be honest, I’m struggling.’
His plight is shared by the handful of traditional oyster and scallop boat crews working Cornwall’s River Fal. It’s a difficult job and the season is restricted to six months between October and March, when the weather is at its most bitter.
Last year, there was a living to be had in shellfish – but then the harsh post-Brexit reality struck.
Two weeks ago, Brussels announced a ban on imports of live mussels, oysters, clams and cockles from so-called ‘Class B’ waters like the Fal unless they have been treated in purification plants first. Even small exporters say they would need to borrow £500,000 to get the filtration tanks and have pleaded with the Government for financial help. In the meantime, their livelihoods – already hit by the lockdown closure of hospitality – are under threat.
Last year, there was a living to be had in shellfish – but then the harsh post-Brexit reality struck
The EU said the shellfish hygiene rules apply to all nations outside the bloc and should not have come as a surprise to the UK Government. However yesterday an email emerged which suggested Brussels had previously agreed that trade could continue post-Brexit, and fishing industry leaders say they were given repeated assurances by Whitehall that this would be the case.
Last week, Boris Johnson refused to rule out blocking the import of some goods from the EU in retaliation, but businesses fear getting swept up in a trade war.
Gary Bennett, who runs the Dorset Shellfish Company, harvests about 100 tons of clams and cockles a year from Poole Harbour. Half of his catch would ordinarily go to France and Spain but that trade has vanished at a cost of £3,000 a week.
‘We have two choices at the moment. Either lose all our export business along with some of our staff, or invest perhaps £500,000 to quadruple our purification tank capacity,’ he says. ‘I believe our side is at fault. Our Government surely knew the rules and it should have provided us with funding much earlier so we could get prepared.
The EU said the shellfish hygiene rules apply to all nations outside the bloc and should not have come as a surprise to the UK Government
‘Now they are talking about some tit-for-tat war involving EU fishing boats, but what would that achieve? I cannot see the EU reversing its decision and it will be catastrophic for our industry. It feels like we’re a political football.’
Scallop fisherman Marshall Vinnicombe, 70, is the fourth generation of his family to harvest the River Fal. ‘There is no question that our Government has sold us out,’ he said. ‘I believe it has known all along that this problem would arise. Our livelihoods are at risk and yet our Government is still busy signing licences for French boats to fish inside our waters. That needs to stop until our markets can reopen.’
The ban applies to ‘Class B’ waters, which includes catches off Wales and South West England. Molluscs caught in Class A waters can be exported without filtration, such as those caught in Scotland.
A few miles north of Falmouth lies a mussel farm on the River Fowey, one of the few in England that has Class A waters. Yet its owner, Gary Rawle, has decided not to take advantage of it, fearing border delays from additional paperwork will render his highly perishable product useless by the time it reaches Europe. Back in Whitehall, Environment Minister George Eustice has written to EU food safety commissioner Stella Kyriakides, demanding an urgent solution.
He has found an unlikely ally in French MEP Pierre Karleskind, the chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries, who has pointed out ‘the UK waters didn’t become dirty on December 31 at midnight, so this [ban] really doesn’t make any sense’.
Thomas Duane, of Falmouth-based FalCatch, has borrowed purification tanks so has been able to export two tons of scallops and oysters to the EU. But even so, each of the ten consignments had to have its own health certificate, Customs clearance and port paperwork, costing about £200 a time.
‘I suspected back in November that this was going to happen,’ he said. ‘Why would the EU exempt us from a food hygiene law it imposes on other countries? Before Brexit, I was exporting four-and-a-half tons per week, worth £20,000. I could have sat at my desk, head in hands, crying. But what good would that do? My customers are desperate for our shellfish. The UK industry has to fight back.’
The Shellfish Association has warned that businesses will fail if the issue is not resolved soon
Mr Ranger is also optimistic. ‘Yes, we were shafted by Brexit, but it’s no use whingeing,’ he said. ‘We have a fantastic opportunity if only our Government will support us. In the past, we’ve sent shellfish to the EU for firms there to purify and sell on – effectively middlemen making money from our product. What if we purified it ourselves and sold direct to European customers?’
The Shellfish Association has warned that businesses will fail if the issue is not resolved soon.
A spokesman said: ‘The majority of our live exports are to the EU. All of a sudden we’re told we can’t export any more. Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] repeatedly told us it had EU confirmation that this trade would be OK. We need to solve the problem now.’
For its part, Defra blames the European Commission for changing its position, adding: ‘There is no scientific justification for this.
‘We’re seeking urgent resolution. We are willing to provide additional reassurances to demonstrate shellfish health but this must recognise our existing high standards and history of trade.’