The UK government’s approach to Brexit looks set to place “huge unnecessary burdens” on exports to the EU of Scottish farmed salmon, the country’s biggest food export by value, an industry group has warned.
In its first public intervention on Brexit policy, the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation said the Conservative government’s desire to diverge from EU regulations threatened to undermine the competitiveness of Scottish salmon.
The warning reinforces widespread concern in the seafood sector about the implications of Brexit and the UK intentions for future trade arrangements with Brussels.
While many in the UK fishing industry are hopeful that leaving the EU will allow them a much greater share of fish from UK waters, many seafood exporters fear it will become harder and more expensive to access the vital EU market.
Exports of Scottish salmon are expected to have rebounded to record levels in 2019 after falling to about £510m in 2018 from the previous record of £600m in 2017. About half of the 2018 exports went to the EU and 27 per cent to North America.
Fewer than 1,500 people were directly employed in farmed salmon production in Scotland in 2018, but the sector supports many more jobs in often economically fragile coastal communities.
The SSPO said that, in particular, the UK refusal to align with EU regulations meant it now appeared “inevitable” that salmon shipments to the bloc would each require certification by a vet or environmental health officer, an expensive administrative hurdle that could slow transport to the continent.
“The addition of an export health certificate for every order of salmon to the EU would place huge unnecessary financial and bureaucratic burdens on our sector,” said Julie Hesketh-Laird, the group’s chief executive.
“We deal in a perishable product so it is crucial for the thousands of loyal customers we have in the EU that we get our fish to these key markets as quickly and smoothly as possible,” Ms Hesketh-Laird said.
Export health certificates are administered by local councils and currently only needed for exports outside the EU. The cost and procedure varies but the SSPO estimated that Brexit could mean 50,000-100,000 more certificates could be needed every year for salmon exports, at a cost of between £1.3m and £8.7m.
Ms Hesketh-Laird appealed to the UK government to make maintaining current seafood trade arrangements for seafood “a priority” in talks with Brussels.
The European Commission has warned that the UK will not secure an extensive trade deal if it wants to diverge from EU standards on issues such as state aid, and that it will link access to the EU market for seafood to the continued ability of EU fishermen to fish UK waters.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, said this month he favoured a deal that would allow tariff and quota-free trade with the bloc, but that the UK could “prosper mightily” even if such a deal was not in place by the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
Elaine Whyte, executive secretary of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association, said it was “very concerned” about the likely need for export health certificates after the transition period. The Clyde association is part of an alliance of inshore fishing interests, many of which rely on sales of live seafood to continental markets.
Ms Whyte said the “prohibitive” cost of the certificates and likely tariffs if the UK did not have a trade deal with the EU that covered seafood would be a “massive issue” for the sector. “The signs are not encouraging,” she said.
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, which is generally very supportive of Brexit and says securing a greater share of the catch from UK waters should be the government’s priority, has also expressed concern about the need for export health certificates.
And last September, amid concerns about a no-deal Brexit that would have meant an immediate requirement for certificates for export to the EU, the Scottish Seafood Association, a processing industry group, said: “Delays because of issues around EHCs and labelling could be fatal for some of the smaller processors in our industry”.
Asked about its plans regarding the certificates, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said there would no change in requirements until the end of 2020.
“We will inform industry later this year about actions they need to take to ensure they can continue trading after the transition period has ended,” a Defra spokesperson said.
Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London