Never-ending Brexit

The UK’s European divorce continues to have repercussions for the salmon industry

It always used to be said that Scottish devolution was “a process not an event”. Well, it seems that the same can now be said for Brexit. Anyone who adhered to the clean-break theory for our departure from the EU is being proved wrong, week by week and month by month.

Indeed, every time we think we have got to grips with the changes brought about by the UK’s exit from the EU, something else rises up from the bureaucratic morass to test us yet again.

This is not to say that Brexit won’t prove to be a success for Scottish salmon in the long run: if the trade deals the UK signs with countries all over the world prove to be advantageous, that could work in our favour. But the short-term reality is not only that Brexit is costing our sector substantial amounts in extra paperwork costs, delays and poorer prices but also that the situation keeps changing.

There have been two recent examples which show how the ongoing “process” of Brexit is continuing to cause us problems.

The first stems from changes brought in on 1 July this year. Up until the end of June, European workers had the right to work in the UK without permits. As from 1 July, permits are now needed – and this doesn’t just apply to workers from the EU, it also covers those from countries like Norway which are outside the EU but inside the European Free Trade Area.

The result has been a major headache for our sector and a problem which could potentially bring the whole Scottish salmon sector to its knees. The reason is the Norwegian wellboat fleet. Our farms are serviced by a number of specialist wellboats. Some of these treat the fish, some harvest while others are used to transport salmon and smolts. Without them, the Scottish salmon sector would grind to a halt, pretty quickly.

From 1 July, the Norwegian crews on these Norwegian-flagged vessels have needed permits to work in Scottish waters. So, for the last couple of months, the boats’ operators have been working with the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation to try to find a way to get permits.

Quite a few crew members qualify for the new Frontier Permit. This applies to those who have worked in the UK in 2020. As many of the crew members worked in Scottish waters last year, they qualify for the new permits. But these new permits don’t cover all the Norwegian crew members needed to operate the boats. The companies operating the boats won’t be able to bring in new crews from Norway to cover for sickness and holidays, and they won’t be able to cover for crew members who move on to other jobs or who retire.

This means there is a finite group of crew members; a group which will always be getting smaller. This will allow wellboats to continue to operate in the short term but a longer term solution is desperately needed to prevent the Scottish salmon sector from hitting a crisis, somewhere down the line.

Brexit enthusiasts would say that these are jobs which should be done by UK workers and, in an ideal world, that might be true. However, the reality is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for UK workers to take these jobs because of the understandable language barriers in their way. To take on these jobs, UK workers would need to be able to speak Norwegian and, crucially, understand all the instructions written in Norwegian on the vessels.

The SSPO is working with the UK Government to try to find a solution, making the case that this is yet another unintended consequence of Brexit and that something needs to be done to prevent considerable damage being done to a great UK export success story.

More new rules, more confusion

Even while we try to manage this issue (and, at the moment, there is no solution in sight), another one is looming round the corner. On August 21 this year, the rules on Export Health Certificates for the export of fish to the EU will change.

I’d like to be able to explain exactly what these will be but there is still considerable uncertainty over the changes and what they will mean. It appears that the certificates may need to be signed off by a certified vet, rather than an environmental health officer, but even that is unclear at the moment. What is certain is that eight months after EHCs were introduced for fish exports to the EU and after eight months of getting used to the complicated new system, further changes are in the pipeline. Not only that, but with other plans in preparation to digitise the entire system – changes we have called for – to help simplify the process, this won’t be the end of the story.

So if there is one thing our members are having to get used to with Brexit it is this: constant change. Just when they thought it was safe to relax a little and think they had sorted the Brexit changes, along comes something new.

It is a tribute to our members that they have managed to get so much salmon to the EU this year. Exports of Scottish salmon in the first quarter of this year were up on the previous year. Well, they were up in volume terms but down in value. What this suggests is that they have valiantly fought through the new bureaucracy to get their fish to the continent but uncertainty over delivery times and delays caused by paperwork problems have eroded the prices they would have expected to get.

I would like to think that this time next year, we will be able to look back on 2021 and say it was just 12 months of “teething problems” and that Brexit has settled down. I would like to think our members will be exporting even more to the EU and that both volume and value of our exports will be up. But, given the almost constant raft of changes to the rules and regulations which are being thrown in the direction of our members, no one can be sure of that.

In fact, the only thing we can be sure of is that this uncertainty will continue. And, if this “process” of Brexit continues much longer, those sunlit uplands of free trade around the world will continue to look as distant as ever.


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