How Brexit brought Scotland's fishing industry to a near standstill

  • Video report by ITV News Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith

A thriving fishing industry in Scotland has quite suddenly stopped functioning, and the catalyst is unarguably Brexit.

That’s not a partisan point - in fact, the point is being made by fishermen who supported Brexit, fishermen who wanted to stay in the EU, and fishermen who didn’t vote.

Let’s take langoustines alone as an example: a bright red (and crawling) warning sign for the UK government that all is not well.

Langoustines are a particularly prized catch in Europe and worth about £80m to the UK economy each year.

They are also distinctly Scottish - one third of the world’s landings of this product are on Scotland’s shores - but most of the catch is sold to France and Spain.

Now, because of changes instigated by the UK’s fisheries deal with the EU, exports to the most profitable markets are being blocked by drastic changes to paperwork and welfare requirements.

  • Paperwork blocking langoustines exports to the EU

We followed the route of one single catch of langoustines to find out what is happening, starting on a dark January evening at Largs pier.

When the boat comes in, that’s when the clock starts ticking. Langoustines landed from the Clyde have 24 hours to reach the markets in France - still alive.

They are put straight from the trawler into a waiting van to be processed in Glasgow, before being dispatched to the continental markets.

Scotland’s ability to deliver like this is what makes the langoustines so valuable.

But when Brexit kicked in, overnight, that stopped happening.

“They’re being held up,” says Jamie Roberts, Skipper of the ‘Guide Them’ trawler.

“The vans and the lorries are being held up in Dover and Calais for 24 hours, two days, sometimes three days.”

The langoustines cannot survive waiting in lorries for that period of time.

Brexit has distrupted Scotland's supply chain to the EU. Credit: ITV News

“They’re dead,” says Jamie. “Game over.”

A dead langoustine is worth nothing - the French markets won’t buy it, and nobody gets paid.

But this produce isn’t just being shut out at the French border.

From the sea, we follow the catch to the Angelbond processors in Glasgow to be packed and prepared for dispatch.

Now, before it can be sent to the EU, it needs to be examined by a health officer in the UK. The problem is there simply aren’t enough of them working in the country just now to keep up with demand.

“On the TV, the radio, and in the newspapers we heard ‘Be ready for Brexit,” Ronald Scordia at Angelbond tells me.

“We are ready. We’ve done all the paperwork to export out products. But the government are not ready for sure.”

Waiting for paperwork, the fresh langoustines would simply go off. So Ronald’s been forced to freeze, which right away cuts the sale price in half.

These freezers, which usually remain empty, are completely stocked with langoustines due to issues with paperwork. Credit: ITV News

To keep the fishermen in work, he is still taking deliveries. But with no exports he is now stockpiling a backlog of frozen langoustines - unheard of in Scotland before Brexit.

Angelbond processors alone have seen their turnover reduced from £150,000 a week to £15,000 a week since the start of January.

There is an understanding in the industry that this is not sustainable.

Some Scottish fishing boats that are able to are now landing their catch in Ireland or Denmark so it’s easier to export to the EU. This completely cuts out UK processors.

The fear in the UK industry is they will establish new patterns of working and the processors here will be redundant.

“It has been a dreadful start to 2021 for many seafood businesses in Scotland and some other food exporters,” says James Withers of Scotland Food & Drink.

“Some loads have been getting to the EU, but more slowly and with difficulties. Many are selling less than 10% of what they normally would be. Others though have found the door to the EU has now been shut completely.

“That is causing a real financial crisis for some. A mixture of paperwork confusion and failing IT systems has crippled a lot of the trade. It needs solutions within the next few days or we may see some permanent casualties.”

The fishing industry in Scotland was unfairly stereotyped as being entirely pro-Brexit. It’s more accurate to say the industry was filled with people who were eager for reform.

The west-coast inshore fishermen know more than anyone how dependent their livelihoods are on a free-flowing movement of goods into the EU.

Now, one third of the fishing fleet on the Clyde is already tied up with the crew looking for other jobs.

Veteran trawler-man Alistair Roberts from Greenock was - and still is a supporter of Brexit - holding out hope that these are just very severe teething problems.

  • Alistair Roberts still hoping Brexit was right decision

“I’ve been fishing for 40 years and I’ve never known it as bad as it is now,” he tells me.

“The problem is not with the French, the problem is here.

“I did back Brexit. We were told it was going to be a ‘sea of opportunity’ - those were the words that Mr [Boris] Johnson used.”

But has he changed his mind?

“You’ll need to ask me again in three weeks’ time if this doesn’t rectify itself. I am still hoping that the government - whether it’s the Scottish Government or the Westminster Government - can do something about this problem and address the issue. Or if not the fishing industry in Scotland is going to go to the wall.”

There is still hope that Britain and the EU will work this out - and that hope is all that drives these fishermen to go back out to sea again each night, because right now there is no guarantee there will be a buyer for their catch, or that any of them will be paid.