On top of this, delays at customs on both sides of the channel has made the export of live crab, lobsters and langoustines to the continent virtually unviable, with many companies pausing the export side of their operations to avoid their catch arriving dead and worthless.
The higher quality end of the UK shellfish industry is now confronting the ‘double whammy’ of restaurants being closed for eat-in and severely constricted trading with the continent. While UK chefs may benefit from a fall in prices, the collapse or partial collapse of the shellfish supply chain would make securing quality produce much harder for chefs.
The importance of the EU market
Traditionally, the majority of the UK’s live shellfish catch is exported to Europe and Asia where there is more demand and therefore higher prices paid. While this has long been a source of bafflement and irritation for UK chefs it has made the industry viable, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland where the vast majority of the catch is exported.
There is a worry that if EU export problems persists chefs will lose access to much of the UK’s shellfish catch because EU-based companies are permitted to buy directly from UK fishing boats and fishing markets and - whatsmore - their lorries can move frictionlessly through customs.
“At the moment we have French and Spanish lorries coming in to pick up from boats that we used to pick up crab and lobster from and they get green-lighted right through,” says Camel Fish managing director Paul Blewett. “It’s the same product, but there are no checks at all.”
“The EU is doing everything to the letter, and that’s fair enough. We decided to get out. It’s something we’ve got to learn to live with. But for us coming out has been an utter disaster. Boris said that none of this would be a problem. It might not be a problem to him, but it certainly is for us.”
Blewett has been forced to pause the cross channel exports that made up the majority of his business. “Some are carrying on but they’re losing money. We don’t get a penny if it turns up dead so we’ve stopped it. We did between three and four truck loads a week, so 30 to 40 tonnes. Sadly even with UK restaurants open the volume just isn’t there. A big restaurant in the south west may take 10kg a week from us, so do the maths. The EU is a much larger market and there’s more of a culture of eating high quality seafood.”
Weakened sector reilsence
With sector resilience already weakened by a year of Covid-19 restrictions and the French border closure over the crucial Christmas trading period, Seafood Scotland says that the custom problems could not have come at a worse time.
"We have welcomed funding from the Scottish Government this week to help seafood businesses keep afloat but ultimately the problems inherent in the system still need to be addressed,” says chief executive Donna Fordyce.
Stevie Parle is supporting langoustine fishermen and wholesalers by selling the crustaceans at his JOY at Portobello shop. "This is really hurting suppliers and highlights the absurdity of this country's preference for prawns, which come from much further away and are often produced in a way that damages the environment," says Parle, who sources his langoustine via The Goods Shed in Canterbury with some caught off the north Kent cost and some caught in Scottish waters.
Parle took to Instagram to highlight the shellfish industry's plight and is now selling up to 2,000 langoustine a week. "People will buy them. They're good value at the moment. Restaurants might be closed, but this industry has a massive following. We’re in the shit, but we need to support our suppliers."
Since the UK is now separate from the EU it is no longer allowed to transport live bivalve molluscs to the EU unless they have been pre-treated in purification plants. The one exception to this rule is when the produce comes from Grade A waters, which account for a tiny proportion of the UK's output.
“It feels a bit bloody minded,” says Porthilly Shellfish owner Tim Marshall. “With restaurants closed our oyster and mussel farming business is about two thirds down at the moment. Luckily the we’re based in quite a foodie area so the home delivery market has kept us ticking over, but it’s much tougher for other companies in Cornwall.”
Removing contaminants in clean seawater tanks prior to shipment is, the industry says, expensive and impractical because it has the potential to slow exports thereby reducing the quality of the catch.
Though not ideal, mass purification in tanks is a possible solution but would require considerable investment in equipment at a time when the industry is facing serious cashflow issues.
Cornwall-based chef Nathan Outlaw - a long-standing champion of high quality British shellfish - says that he hoped politicians would work to find a solution.
“But in the meantime the UK should support the industry by eating as many bivalve molluscs as possible. Although that’s harder to do when our restaurants are not open,” he adds.
A number of chefs including Parle, Tom Cenci and Restaurant 22 chef Sam Carter are encouraging their peers to show their support for British shellfish by featuring it on their takeaway menus.
Craig Allen, a director at fresh produce purveyor Local and Independent is also involved with the initiative. “One of the reasons we set up was to help out fishermen and farmers in these changing times. We think the EU are playing games with our fishing industry and this will make life harder for British fishermen and encourage more European fishermen to take advantage of this change, again having an immediate knock on effect on our industry."
Jack Stein (son of Rick) is also helping out by pledging to purchase a large amount of lobsters following an emotional appeal from shellfish supplier Nerys Edwards on BBC News, which followed a lorry-load of live shellfish being stalled for 24 hours in Portsmouth.
The lobsters - 100kg a week in the first instance - will be used for the Stein's at Home boxes.
"Having seen Nerys on the news, I wanted to get in touch straight away. I felt her pain, and as a company which works with fishermen, seafood and suppliers like Nerys' on a daily basis, I wanted to help," says Stein.
"We are in need of more lobsters in Cornwall, so this was an opportunity to help keep some of Nerys' suppliers in business while she struggles to ship to Europe."
"The Stein's at Home menus have been going really well, and we are doing it to keep revenue flowing, retain our staff while our restaurants are shut, and importantly to make sure we keep using our long-standing Cornish suppliers."