After the split

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It was one of my Salmon Scotland colleagues who put it best: “We have no greater access to Europe than a tilapia farmer from Zimbabwe. We are a third country now and we are being treated as such.”

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we knew this was going to happen. We were told, before the Brexit vote, that we would lose all the export advantages we had with Europe.

Yet there was still a feeling that perhaps, because we have been trading with Europe for so long, that maybe they would look on us favourably and not enforce all the rules as stringently as they could.

But no, now that the latest animal health regulations have come into force, it is clear that we really do have pretty much the same status as African tilapia farmers when it comes to selling into the European Union.

That is galling and frustrating. Each load of salmon, which would have passed through the border posts with hardly a glance 18 months ago, now has to be accompanied by enough paperwork to wrap a dozen fish suppers.

Salmon producers have to declare if the fish is destined for human consumption or further processing – regardless of whether the answer is both, neither or some of one and some of the other.

If the fish is destined for further processing, each load has to be signed off by an official vet and all farms exporting to the continent have to be approved by a vet in advance.

Then, when it gets to the border posts, almost every part of every single load is checked by hand even though this is exactly the same product that was waved through with a smile a few months ago.

There have been delays, confusion and frustrations. There are barely enough vets to process the certificates and the system could buckle at any point, particularly if there is a Covid flare up that reduces staffing numbers at the certification hubs.

We had hoped the whole export health certificate system would have been digitised and put online by this point, but that seems to be delayed too.

It may seem odd, given all this, that when the 2021 export figures come out this month, they will show that Scottish salmon producers sent more fish to Europe in that year than ever before.

Those figures will no doubt be seized on by pro-Brexit politicians to claim that the UK’s departure from the EU has been a success and that exports are thriving.

Those figures, however, are evidence of a much more complex picture. The main reason Scottish salmon farmers exported more fish to Europe in 2021 was because there were still serious transport issues with more distant markets, particularly China and the United States.

Also, while volumes were up in 2021, values were down. Farmers were getting less for the fish than they were before.

So the real picture is of a difficult trading year with producers battling valiantly against Covid transport restrictions and Brexit-induced bureaucracy. In fact, it is remarkable how much salmon they managed to get to their customers in Europe, given the head winds they faced.

The staffing issue

But there is another side-effect of Brexit, one that has crept up on our members more slowly, but that could have a more damaging effect in the long run.

Anyone who visited a fish processing plant in Scotland before Brexit would have seen how much our sector relied on European workers. Signs and posters were often written in Polish, Romanian or Bulgarian while the languages you could hear on the processing lines varied from one Eastern European tongue to the next.

Some of these workers applied for leave to remain and have stayed, living and working in Scotland, but some have gone home, never to return.

There used to be a throughput of European workers, but not anymore. That conveyor belt has stopped and there is no evidence it will ever get going again.

Taken together with self-isolation regulations, this Brexit-inspired labour force problem is now causing real problems. All the processing facilities serving the Scottish salmon sector are short of workers, some by 15%-20%.

The problem can be particularly acute on the islands, where the loss of half a dozen workers can place immense strain on those who remain, depressing their morale and making more staff shortages all but inevitable.

There is simply not the pool of workers there used to be and they will have to come from somewhere if our sector is to thrive.

Salmon Scotland has joined forces with the Scottish Seafood Association and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation to ask the UK Government to loosen the restrictions on foreign labour for fish processing. We have asked for the same sorts of dispensations given to the haulage and poultry sectors when they hit similar problems before Christmas.

The UK Government does not want to keep adjusting the rules – for obvious reasons. If it did, it would undermine its own arguments that Brexit is a success that will provide more jobs for British workers.

This is, perhaps the crux of the issue: Brexit was an ideological move but it has created practical problems. Only by accepting that real, concrete steps have to be taken to solve these problems will the Government ease the pains of Brexit.

Yet, if it does it will effectively be admitting that Brexit is not the all-singing-all-dancing success it has consistently claimed it to be.

Our hope is that practical necessity will win out over ideology. If it doesn’t, then there will only be more pain ahead – something our members really do not deserve to endure any more.