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Post-Brexit shellfish export ban is indefinite, EU says

Scallops - Image credit: Jeremy Keith

Post-Brexit shellfish export ban is indefinite, EU says

The European Union has told the UK shellfish industry that thousands of tonnes of oyster, mussel, clam, cockle and scallop exports are banned from the bloc indefinitely, Holyrood’s sister site PoliticsHome has learned.

British fishermen, who had been told by the UK Government to expect the ban to last until spring, are warning this will be a fatal blow to their businesses.

Last month it was reported that wild shellfish caught in most UK waters that were not ready for human consumption – shellfish known collectively as live bivalve molluscs (LBMs) – had been barred from entering the EU.

This shellfish is normally purified or processed in the EU before it is distributed to supermarkets, restaurants and bars.

The UK government told affected businesses and PoliticsHome that this ban was set to expire on 21 April, when Brussels implemented new animal health legislation.

However, a European Commission official last week wrote to the British shellfish industry stating that the ban would remain in place indefinitely and would also include farmed shellfish.

In the email sent on Tuesday 19 January, and seen by PoliticsHome, the EU official said it was “strictly forbidden for bivalve molluscs originating from third countries, [such] as UK” not ready for human consumption to enter the EU at any time, and that “molluscs accompanied by an aquaculture certificate, wild or from aquaculture, cannot in any case reach a depuration centre in the EU”. 

The email resulted in an urgent meeting of the British shellfish industry on Monday 25 January in which businesses were told that the bombshell development was “contrary to the information we had previously received” from the UK Government and would have “huge implications” for the shellfish industry. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had been advising shellfish traders that they would be able to resume live shellfish exports to the EU in late April.

PoliticsHome has seen an email sent by UK fisheries minister Victoria Prentis in November, just weeks before the end of the Brexit transition period, which said that this trade would be able to restart with “the introduction of a relevant certificate”, which Brussels is due to introduce on 21 April.

However, the EU has told the industry that this will not be the case.

A UK Government source confirmed that UK officials were aware of the EU’s stance, with a DEFRA spokesperson telling PoliticsHome: “We will continue to raise the issue of live bivalve molluscs not ready for human consumption with the EU, to ensure the trade can continue securely.”

Prior to the UK leaving the single market and customs union, thousands of tonnes of live shellfish were shipped to the continent, where they would then be processed. 

However, strict EU hygiene rules mean shellfish that are not ready to be eaten are no longer allowed to enter the bloc, resulting in this multi-million pound trade grinding to a halt overnight.

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesperson, wrote to Prentis on Monday asking for “clarification on your part as to how businesses were so severely misled and why it was left to the European Commission to inform our seafood industry of the reality of the situation”.

He said: “As you will no doubt be aware, an indefinite ban on live shellfish exports to the EU will have a catastrophic impact on seafood producers across the UK, including high quality scallop catchers in my constituency.

“Given the already-significant disruption and long-term concerns the industry has due to the Government’s new trade deal with the EU, many companies affected risk closing operations entirely.”

Commenting on the letter, Carmichael said: “An indefinite ban on live shellfish exports would be catastrophic for isles scallop catches – I am calling for urgent answers and action from the fisheries minister.

“The seafood industry needs a memorandum of understanding with the EU so that our businesses can have some measure of stability and confidence in their trading.

“You cannot tell people there is no problem when reality is staring you in the face.

“DEFRA ministers must have known for some time that the shellfish export ban would continue and yet they left it to the European Commission to tell the industry – there is no excuse for giving false hope to exporters.

“How can businesses have confidence in government advice when they get more accurate answers from elsewhere?”

He added: “This is yet another example of what fishermen and exporters have been saying for weeks – these are not “teething problems”, they are long-term structural issues.

“The Government must recognise that fact and take more serious action.”

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