Time to end this shellfish stand-off

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Emma Kim
Getty/Emma Kim

Related tags Seafish Seafood Mussel mussels

With UK mussel producers starved of income and European consumers denied a product, the EU has reiterated that its ban on shellfish imports from the UK is permanent. The stalemate benefits no one.

Some British shellfish producers fear losing their livelihoods after a technicality in the Brexit deal left them unable to export to their primary markets in the EU.

The situation is complex. Essentially, leaving the EU on the 1st of January this year meant the UK having to play by new rules it didn’t foresee. The EU states that live bivalve molluscs (or mussels, oysters, clams, cockles and scallops) that are imported into the bloc must either come from unpolluted waters (classed as A) or be purified before being sold. Most UK waters are class B – not because they are no less clean than EU waters; they are simply classed differently. Before Brexit, British producers would send these foods to what were then other parts of the EU to be purified at depuration plants before being sold to consumers.

Now that the UK has left the EU and has ‘third country’ status, producers can’t export the catch to EU member states. And without the necessary infrastructure in the UK -- such as shellfish cleaning and sorting plants -- to clean them themselves, British producers (with the larger mussel trade most impacted) are thus effectively banned from selling the catch there – catastrophic when you consider the European appetite for mussels (around 600,000 tonnes a year, according to the FAO) versus that of the British (virtually nothing). According to David Jarrad, chief executive of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB), 89% of all shellfish landed in the UK is exported, trade worth £15-18 million, with the vast majority going to the EU. Can’t the Brits eat their own shellfish? Even a lightning-fast U-turn in deep-rooted eating habits won’t make the slightest dent in the surplus supply. And even if they did, prices would hit the floor, sinking many businesses. Parts of the industry therefore fears its survival.   

Cockle up or seaspiracy?

British shellfish exporters – many of whom have been unable to sell anything since January -- put the blame fair and square on the government. They say they were repeatedly reassured by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the run up to Brexit that they would be able to continue to send produce to EU depurations plants.

The British government blames the EU, which it claims changed the rules after Brexit ‘without scientific or technical justification’.

“The legislation was clear that the export of live bivalve molluscs from Class B waters for purification could continue after the transition period,”​ a government spokesperson said. “Our correspondence with the Commission confirmed this. Effectively they have changed the law to justify their position in blocking the trade.”

The EU denies this. It continues to state that the rules have not changed. “This was not new and therefore not a surprise to the UK administration,” ​a spokesperson said.

The stalemate, meanwhile, is causing ripples on both sides of the English Channel. “European consumers will lose out because there won't be so much available,”​ said Jarred.

The Dutch Mussel Traders Association is ‘disappointed' with the situation. “We have less trade. So we share the Brexit problems,” ​a spokesperson said.

The Market Advisory Council, which submits proposals to the EC and member states on matters related to the market of fishery and aquaculture products, has called for a 're-examination' and a return to the pre-Brexit situation.

In a letter to the EC, it complained the new modus operandi is actually detrimental to EU importers of shellfish products, as it increases costs, and decreases the quantity and quality of imported products. 

The EU is understandably unwilling to be seen to curry favour to the nation that ‘left the club’. But the MAC said the current difficulties can be described as “unforeseen effect of Brexit where companies both in the EU and in the UK will suffer from the negative impact of the situation”.​ In response, the Commission again repeated it has 'no intention' to revise the rules.

A blow to environmental ambitions

The impasse has many costs. Shellfish is championed as a highly sustainable and nutritious climate-friendly food that doesn't require chemicals or feed to grow: an ideal solution at a time the industry is desperate to find new sustainable food sources that may improve planetary and human health.

A collapse of much of the shellfish industry therefore risks driving a coach and horses through the UK's Seafood 2040 strategy of increasing the aquaculture sector as part of efforts to achieve a 78% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035. "The sad thing is that we're seeing the demise of an industry that has very little downsides,”​ said Jarred.

The Marine Conservation Society, a non-profit organisation that campaigns for better oceans, and which has written to UK Ministers asking them to intervene to prevent affected shellfish businesses from collapse, warns of environmental ramifications beyond the UK. “If the blue mussel market goes to somewhere like Chile, think of the air miles associated with that,” ​said Dawn Purchase, the aquaculture programme manager at the MCS.

Pioneering aquaculture techniques may vanish

The EU may be eyeing an opportunity to fill the supply itself. But Spain relies on imported cockles, as France does of scallops, according to SAGB. What’s more, in contrast to the increasing aquaculture production of mussels worldwide, aquaculture production in the EU has shown a decreasing trend over the last two decades​.  

Innovative solutions that promise to boost aquaculture production are therefore needed – but we risk losing these in the current deadlock.

For example, John Holmyard is currently building the UK’s largest offshore mussel farm in Devon on the south coast. Using a state-of-the art rope growing technique, it will also be the largest of its type in European waters, if completed. Holmyard has not been able to sell a single mussel since January 1 to his traditional markets in the EU. “95% of our business is with buyers in Europe and we're now left with no market,”​ he said. "We don't have a viable business if we don't have the export trade."

What’s the solution?

The UK could re-classify its waters. But it appears in no mad rush to do so – the next review is due in September. What’s more, the SAGB fears any changes will be too slow in coming to offer any real hope to the businesses under threat. And even if UK waters were miraculously reclassified overnight, no one believes the EU would immediately start allowing trade to recontinue. Similalry, businesses haven't the time nor money to build their own depuration plants.

Both parties appear unwilling to negotiate and for obvious reasons: Brussels doesn’t want to cede any more ground to the UK; while the UK is desperate to avoid any new alignments with EU rules.

But political posturing over an unforeseen and unintended consequence of Brexit is endangering livelihoods, depriving consumers of choice and turning a blind eye to ground-breaking solutions that hope to address climate change. The only way out of this is for the EU and UK to get around the table and agree realignment.

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