Not only has the post-Brexit ‘sea of opportunity’ proven elusive, the move to net zero may cause further issues for the Scottish fishing sector, writes AAB’s Alistair Duncan.
2021 was supposed to be the bright new dawn for the Scottish fishing industry with the chance to grasp the “Sea of Opportunity” created by Brexit.
As we near the end of the year, a look back over the last 12 months doesn’t paint as rosy a picture for the sector.
The warning signs were there as early as January. Scottish seafood firms were complaining that their businesses were in crisis with several exporters suspending the export of live seafood and fresh fish. The new rules for trade with the EU required a significant increase in documentary requirements and veterinary checks.
On top of the actual export declaration, seafood shipments have a raft of other documentation ranging from catch certificates to various health certificates.
For each individual shipment there are multiple documents. An error in one will result in the shipment being delayed.
In many cases, groupage shipments came grinding to a halt where one element of the load had incorrect or incomplete documentation, holding up all shipments on the same lorry. This issue led to some logistic companies suspending groupage services in early January, leaving businesses with no way to move their product.
This requirement for extra paperwork and, not forgetting that January 2021 was the height of the pandemic, Covid tests for drivers added significant costs to each shipment. In addition, delays meant that whereas before Brexit Scottish exporters could have their live and fresh produce in the Boulogne fish market within 24 hours, some shipments took more than three days to get to market.
As 2021 proceeded, many seafood businesses implemented more efficient structures to resolve some of these issues. In particular, arrangements that significantly reduced the volume of paperwork helped avoid delays at the port.
While some problems could be dismissed as teething issues, no solution has been found to the increased veterinary checks. Calls for a veterinary partnership agreement with the EU started even before the signing of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Another recurring theme throughout 2021 sector was staffing shortages. From the Road Haulage Association’s estimate of a shortage of more than 100,000 qualified drivers in the UK, to the Scottish Seafood Association’s demand for urgent action to combat the haemorrhage of overseas workers from then fish processing sector; the combined impact of Covid and Brexit resulted in significant staffing issues.
With 2021 drawing to a close, and on the back of the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the move to Net Zero has the potential to create further issues for the sector. As well as competing with EU fishermen for the limited resources, the Scottish fishing industry finds itself suffering a spatial squeeze as it increasingly faces competition for access to some of the richest fishing grounds from offshore wind energy developments.
As we move into 2022, many of these problems will continue for the sector and the spectre of empty fish markets still looms over the industry. Calls for a Veterinary Partnership Agreement will continue to grow louder. Furthermore, as was shown with introduction of emergency visas for EU lorry drivers, there can be an appetite and willingness to address the issues. Hopefully this will continue into 2022 and help reopen the ‘Sea of Opportunity’.
Alistair Duncan is a Director and Head of Indirect Tax at Anderson Anderson & Brown (AAB)