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A local seafood firm has called for the export process to Europe to be streamlined amid the bureaucratic backlog following Brexit.
Easdale Seafoods Ltd, a family-owned business based at Balvicar, on Seil, employs 15 full-time staff and supports 15 local fishing vessels and crews by selling catches to Europe.
Now in its 31st year, Easdale exports shipments of live creel-caught langoustines by air-freight or lorry to customers in France and Spain.
But since New Year’s Day, new rules for moving goods from the UK to the EU have come into effect.
As a result, it did not shipped at all during the first week of January because of the high risks, while paperwork had ‘quadrupled’ – piling hours and hours spent on the admin for a product that has a very short time to reach market.
Connie Macaskill, office manager, said: ‘We’ve known this was coming for a year or two and worked really hard to prepare. We didn’t know whether there was going to be a deal or not and both scenarios affected the paperwork.
‘We worked flat out to cover all eventualities and when the deal came through on Christmas Eve it gave us less than a week to prepare for the paperwork in reality. We didn’t get time to practice or establish what the pitfalls would be.’
A new swathe of checks, certification and approval is now required and involves a range of different agencies – from Food Standards Scotland to local councils, Marine Scotland, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, among others.
Shipments are scrutinised with relatively minor errors such as spaces in the wrong place, missing zeros and hyphens all contributing to delays.
Connie stressed she intended no criticism and praised the environmental health officers at Argyll and Bute Council, local fisheries officers, Marine Scotland, and all the agencies which have helped.
She said: ‘I wouldn’t blame anybody in particular. Everyone is in the same boat and has been treading water. The biggest issue really was there wasn’t enough time and we didn’t know what the deal was going to be. Time, hopefully, will improve matters.’
Shipment of around 200 iced boxes of chilled prawns tend to command an average price of £8,000, although from that there are costs for fishermen, transportation and staff.
Prices can fluctuate depending on demand, although the coronavirus had made the market very ‘fragile’ and flights are not wholly reliable.
Connie explained that one entire shipment bound for Barcelona by road remained in Glasgow for three days before departing for France. This was due to a paperwork hold-up by other exporters shipping goods on the same truck – which condemned the entire live cargo to waste.
At the time of speaking to The Oban Times, question marks remained over two further shipments destined for Spain, which were cancelled having been due to fly from Glasgow to Heathrow and onto Barcelona.
Connie said the company had needed to restrict how many days crews should fish because of doubts over live produce getting to customers in time.
While welcoming the £23 million fund for the UK’s seafood sector announced by its government, her concern was it may not be enough and that fishing crews are ineligible.
‘We need the fishing boats as they are our lifeline – if you don’t support fishermen, there’s no point keeping the exporters,’ said Connie.
Ideally, the process needed to be simplified and have a single organisation in charge of oversight, she added. It’s also essential that we work together with officials in France to streamline processes in order to limit the damage already done to our fishing industry.
Brendan O’ Hara MP, who represents Argyll and Bute for the SNP in the UK Parliament, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for a compensation package and said Brexit had not delivered on its promises to Scotland’s fishing industry and seafood sector.
Of the £23 million fund, Mr O’Hara said the pay-out would not make up for ‘weeks of distress and damage’ and said for some businesses it is ‘too little, too late’.
Mr O’Hara said: ‘What we do know is the compensation won’t cover the vast majority of fishing vessels that don’t export directly. The Westminster government must ensure compensation is available to all businesses who have been harmed by the imposition of new export requirements, otherwise it will be pointless, cost people their jobs and bring lasting harm to the industry.’