“This is an absolute shambles –fishermen always seem to get used as a bargaining chip”

Creels at Portree harbour
PHOTO: Willie Urquhart/WHFP

WEST COAST FISHERMEN are facing an anxious wait to see if a solution can be found to the long delays hammering the export of live shellfish to the continent.

Following the UK’s departure from the EU at 11pm on Hogmanay, new rules governing trade have crippled the sector, which is hugely important to many fragile communities across the Highlands and Islands.

As a result, many creel boats have stopped fishing altogether, while the transport firms responsible for delivering crab, lobster and langoustine to European buyers staged a drive-slow protest in London on Monday of this week.

Fisherman Duncan McAndrew, from Duncraig in Lochalsh, told the Free Press that those reliant on the live export of shellfish had been “absolutely shafted” by UK ministers, who “knew this was going to happen for months.”

One of the delays is with the processing of “groupage” on lorries, he said, where deliveries of different products from multiple sellers are grouped together on the same lorry.

“But the core of the delay is the paperwork coming out of HMRC,” Mr McAndrew added. “Firms have to log-in to the HMRC with details of the load, such as product, weight, destination, but the paperwork is being rejected. It’s an HMRC computer problem. Garbage in, garbage out.

PHOTO: Willie Urquhart/WHFP

“We need to get back to sea soon. We catch a seasonal product and we need things to get back to normal by the end of this month. February to April is a vital time of year for landings.

“I’ve heard that it takes 50 hours to get a lorry onto a ferry. This is a time critical industry and the UK government should be applying for a derogation. We are told these are teething troubles but guys are going to go under soon.

“The cynic in me says this was a deliberate kick to an industry which is vitally important to the west coast of Scotland.”

Mr McAndrew said he had taken his boat out of the water earlier this month for some minor repairs and will not be going to sea again until a solution has been found.

Plockton fisherman Christopher Fahy
PHOTO: Christopher Fahy

JUST ACROSS THE bay in Plockton, fellow creelman Christopher Fahy enjoyed a “great turn out” last week when he held a langoustine sale at the pier.

“I had landed the day before and it was all sitting in tanks on Skye,” he added.

“I was told there’s no point taking them down south so I just thought I’d start selling them locally. The support was great but you can’t expect local people to buy enough of a premium product.

“Being active one day a week is a poor week. It is absolutely not enough to survive on. It is barely enough to pay the bills.”

Like Mr McAndrew, Mr Fahy had now tied up his boat and was not planning to go to sea for a while.

“This is an absolute shambles that is hitting so many fragile rural communities,” he said. “I support the lorry drivers because we need to do something to make them listen. Fishermen always seem to get used as a bargaining chip.”

Lorries assembling in London for Monday’s protest

ANOTHER LOCHALSH FISHERMAN, Alistair Philp from Avernish, said he too had been forced to tie up for a while to concentrate on boat maintenance. He also supported the lorry drivers’ protest.

He added: “Personally, when I was doing it at peak [the first] lockdown we could only sell one day’s worth of catch per week. I doubt we would do so well just now.”

Eyemouth-based DR Collin takes lots of shellfish from Skye and Lochalsh through its part-ownership of Keltic Seafare, which has a presence in Kyleakin.

Usually, the firm spends two days a week loading up on local produce.

“We have had to stop that,” James Cook, DR Collin’s managing director, told the Free Press. “There are about 70 boats on the west coast of Scotland that supply us and they have stopped fishing. The market is there but we just can’t get the product to it. I haven’t been able to get a lorry out of the country since 29th December.”

A show of force in the capital

Various levels of bureaucracy are the problem, he added: “the customs papers, transfer and security documents, and health certificates, required by every vehicle. This all takes time to complete properly”.

Five DR Collins’ lorries took part in the London protest, which prompted a hasty promise of compensation from Boris Johnson.

“He alluded to a support package that even his own back room teams did not know about,” said Mr Cook. “But even if one is introduced it is only a short-term solution. We need something like the trusted trader scheme in the same way the supermarkets have to take foodstuff to Northern Ireland.

“We have been totally forgotten about. Comments like ‘happy British fish’ just incite a reaction. How little they regard our contribution up here. The UK government have let us down badly. This is hugely frustrating for the industry and I have a great deal of sympathy with the small traders who cannot absorb this blow to their incomes.”

ROSS, SKYE AND LOCHABER MP Ian Blackford thought that a compensation scheme for fishermen would be put in place.

“This is welcome, but we need a better solution to the problem,” he said. “It is a mess. None of the systems were trialled before the new year. We asked to make sure there was a grace period where they tested the system, but they refused.”

Fish exports are worth a £1 billion per year for Scotland, he said. This could be “put into sharp reverse” unless a solution is found soon. Customers can find alternative to Scottish crab and lobster, less so with langoustine, added Mr Blackford.

A constituent from Acharacle in Ardnamurchan has been unable to send a lorry off to the continent for the first time in 35 years, he said, and is
“beside himself” as a result.

“If shellfish has to be frozen the value will be 20 per cent of the live product,” Mr Blackford commented. “This will be devastating for livelihoods. We should also bear in mind that these lorries are full of frozen foods and ready meals when they come back. So we will run into a problem with inbound goods too.”

An industry united in its concerns

The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation said every community around the coastline of Scotland should be encouraged to applaud the drive-through demonstrations that took place in London this week, demanding a resolution to the red-tape wrangles that have halted seafood exports.

Inshore fishermen “are all in this together”, said Alasdair Hughson, SCFF chairman and managing director of export firm Keltic Seafare.

He added: “It is inevitable that the UK shellfish industry would want to make its voice heard loud and clear on this matter. After the year that all of these businesses have had, struggling to survive against the odds, now faced with this situation.

“To now find themselves being blamed for not completing forms correctly when they are all just trying to follow government guidelines, which are unclear and changing all of the time. Hearing a wealthy and privileged Tory minister making frivolous comments in the Parliament in some ridiculous attempt at playground humour, is the last straw for many, we think.”

He continued: “If this debacle does not improve very soon we are looking at many established businesses coming to the end of the line. With the knock-on effects for all who depend on them, including the hundreds of small fishing businesses in extremely fragile communities around our coasts who rely on these trucks to turn up day after day, week after week to get their catch to market.

“From seabed to plate, this is not an easy business. People put their heart and soul into making it work, with ridiculously long hours.

“The blood, sweat and tears poured into their operations. What else can they do but fight to make their voices heard? We need government and civil service to step up to the plate like never before and do whatever they can to help this industry survive and get through this so that we can all benefit when things improve.

“All we want to do is roll up our sleeves and get to work supporting our communities. We don’t have all the answers but they are out there, and we need to find them.”