Brexit’s ‘existential threat’ to seafood sector in Argyll and Bute

Brendan O' Hara MP raises Brexit concerns in Westminster Hall debate.

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The seafood sector on the west coast of Scotland faces an ‘existential threat’ as a result of Brexit rather than the ‘sea of opportunity’ that was promised, an MP has told parliament.

Firms from Islay to Oban are facing ‘huge’ transport and logistical problems, falling prices, loss of markets, red tape and labour shortages, according to MP Brendan O’Hara.

Mr O’Hara, who represents Argyll and Bute for the SNP, said the feedback came from no fewer than four businesses based in the constituency.

These are Easdale Seafoods at Balvicar; Fiona McFarlane’s Islay Crab Exports; Jamie McMillan’s Lochfyne Langoustines, Tarbert; and Jonathan McAllister’s fishing business in Oban.

He made the comments on Tuesday July 13 during a Westminster Hall debate called by Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.

Mr O’Hara said: ‘From Oban in the north to Islay in the south, they all tell a story of an industry struggling with falling prices, loss of markets; an industry drowning in bureaucracy and red tape, and one struggling to cope with labour shortages and facing huge transport and logistical problems.

‘This is an existential threat to the industry in the west coast of Scotland.’

He said the prices for catches for Jonathan McAllister’s business had ‘fallen by a third’ since 2019. What was once a ‘routine’ job of landing catches in Northern Ireland had become ‘wrapped up in customs red tape,’ said Mr O’Hara.

Staff at Easdale Seafoods now required a ‘forensic knowledge’ of French customs procedures and VAT regulations. The firm had needed to adapt quickly and ‘spend an awful lot of money to stay afloat in this sea of opportunity,’ he said.

The firm also had to pay VAT in advance and then reclaim it from the French authorities, said Mr O’Hara, although very few UK banks were set up to use the system the French used.

It meant the company had ‘thousands of Euros tied-up with the French authorities and no idea when they are getting it back,’ Mr O’Hara told the debate, which was called ‘fisheries management after the UK’s departure from the EU’.

A shortage of qualified HGV drivers had added another layer of  complication to the issues facing Easdale Seafoods and Islay Crab Exports, he said.

Mr O’Hara told the debate: ‘Most pressing (on Islay) is the shortage of workers. Jobs that were once filled by EU nationals now lie unfilled and they now desperately need double the number of processors that they currently have.

‘Economically we live in a very fragile constituency and this situation is unsustainable and it was laid out starkly by Jamie McMillan, of Loch Fyne Langoustines. He employs 23 people in the village of Tarbert.

‘His exports are down 40 per cent and the cost of getting it to market has soared, with three hours of every day now dealing with Brexit-related paperwork, and his costs are £300 to £500 a day on customs fees alone.

‘That is the reality of Brexit for the fishing communities of Argyll and Bute. That’s the reality of the sea of opportunity. That’s why we voted against Brexit.’

Mr O’Hara directly quoted Fiona McFarlane of Islay Crab Exports.

‘If people had all the information and knowledge of what Brexit really meant they would have voted differently. Someone should be held accountable to the country for misleading the people.’

Mr O’Hara said: ‘She is absolutely right.’

A Defra spokesperson said: ‘The UK and the EU have agreed an historic Fisheries Framework Agreement that reflects the UK’s new status as an independent coastal state, and works to protect and promote the rights of fishermen across the UK.

‘Whilst the export situation has improved since January, we know there are still challenges for the seafood sector, including additional costs and administrative burdens. We are therefore working with industry on longer-term opportunities to improve export systems and reduce certification burdens, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

‘The UK Government’s commitment of up to £23 million has provided targeted support to Scottish businesses – and a further £100 million has been dedicated to rejuvenating the industry and coastal communities across the UK in the longer term.’