Emergency government funding of £23m for the seafood industry has been welcomed by fishing organisations. However, they have warned large parts of the beleaguered sector remain vulnerable to post-Brexit border disruption.
Defra said the funding, announced last night (19 January), would “support businesses which have been most adversely affected by the Covid pandemic and the challenges of adjusting to new requirements for exporting”.
It follows a disastrous start to the year for the UK fishing sector, with a raft of Brexit-related IT problems, additional bureaucracy and a halt in groupage exports causing chaos for exporters.
Seafood Scotland said last week that the knock-on impact of the delays – which had already cost exporters millions in lost revenue – had led some vessels to land their fish directly in the EU, while average prices had fallen by 80% for some species.
The sector’s concerns culminated in dozens of seafood lorries descending on Whitehall on Monday to protest against the government’s lack of support on the issue.
James Withers, CEO of Scotland Food & Drink, said the anger felt by many seafood businesses at losing access to EU markets had been stoked by government ministers “dismissing this crisis as ‘teething problems’ or worse still, trying to make jokes about it”.
But after Defra confirmed it would supply the emergency funding, Seafood Scotland CEO Donna Fordyce welcomed the fact the sector “has been heard and action is being taken”.
The bailout was in recognition “of the unique circumstances of the fishing sector, which has had the most significant new requirements to adjust to, and for whom even a short delay can lead to goods perishing – at a time when the industry is facing lower market prices and demand due to the pandemic”, Defra said.
The fund will be targeted at fishing export businesses who can provide evidence of a genuine loss in exporting fish and shellfish to the EU. Support will be available immediately and paid retrospectively to cover losses incurred since 1 January. The scheme will be targeted at small and medium enterprises and the maximum claim available to individual operators will be £100,000.
The government said it was also offering additional support to the sector in the form of advice and more resources to support export certification.
However, Fordyce warned “there will be questions around the extent to which it supports the entire supply chain, from fleet to export”.
She added: “As we currently understand it, the deal offers crucial short-term assistance. It is also reassuring to see that the processing sector is set to be included in future support packages.
“This will offer a ray of light to some small and medium-sized companies that have experienced crippling losses over the past few weeks. However, larger companies and smaller shellfish boats are still vulnerable.
“Money will offer a much-needed sticking plaster covering the losses over the last few weeks, but to completely staunch the wound, the sector still needs a period of grace during which the systems must be overhauled so they are fit for purpose. It is also essential that groupage returns to a fully operational state as a matter of urgency.”
Her comments were echoed by Tavish Scott, CEO of the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, who warned compensation would not remove the “endless problems” in exporting currently faced by the sector.
“Compensation may help a limited number of seafood businesses and that would be welcome,” he said. “The salmon farming sector is worth £300m every year in exports to Europe. Our sector simply wants the ability to successfully sell fish into this European marketplace.”
Environment secretary George Eustice said the fund would provide “crucial support” for the sector.
“We are continuing to work closely with the fishing and aquaculture sectors to make sure that they are supported, and can continue to fish whilst contributing to the economies of our coastal communities.”