Many Scottish fishermen have halted exports to European Union markets after post-Brexit bureaucracy shattered the system that used to put fresh langoustine and scallops in French shops just a day after they were harvested.
Fishing exporters told Reuters news agency their businesses could become unviable after the introduction of health certificates, customs declarations and other paperwork added days to their delivery times and hundreds of pounds to the cost of each load.
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Business owners said they had tried to send small deliveries to France and Spain to test the new systems this week but it was taking five hours to secure a health certificate in Scotland, a document which is required to apply for other customs paperwork.
In the first working week after Brexit, one-day deliveries were taking three or more days – if they got through at all.
Several owners could not say for sure where their valuable cargo was. A trade group told fishermen to stop fishing exported stocks.
“Our customers are pulling out,” Santiago Buesa of SB Fish told Reuters. “We are fresh product and the customers expect to have it fresh, so they’re not buying. It’s a catastrophe.”
On Thursday evening, the Scottish fishing industry’s biggest logistics provider DFDS Scotland told customers it had taken the “extraordinary step” of halting until Monday export groupage, when multiple product lines are carried, to try to fix IT issues, paperwork errors and the backlog.
Scotland harvests vast quantities of langoustine, scallops, oysters, lobsters and mussels from sea fisheries along its bracing Atlantic coast which are rushed by truck to grace the tables of European diners in Paris, Brussels and Madrid.
But Britain’s departure from the EU’s orbit is the biggest change to its trade since the launch of the single market in 1993, introducing reams of paperwork and costs that must be completed to move goods across the new customs border.
Those trading in food and livestock face the toughest requirements, hitting the express delivery of freshly caught fish that used to move overnight from Scotland, via England, into France, before going on to other European markets in days.
David Noble, whose Aegirfish buys from Scottish fleets to export to Europe, said he would have to pay 500 to 600 pounds ($680-815) per day for paperwork, wiping out most profit.
His concern is that this marks more than just teething problems, and says he cannot pass on the higher costs of doing business. “I’m questioning whether to carry on,” he said.
“If our fish is too expensive our customers will buy elsewhere.”
In the single market, European food could be processed and packed in Britain then returned to the EU for sale. But Britain’s pursuit of a more distant relationship means its trade deal does not cover all interactions between the two sides.
Gaps have already appeared on French and Irish shop shelves.
Fishing trade bodies said mistakes in filling out paperwork meant entire consignments were being checked. A French fishmongers’ union said numerous seafood trucks had been held up at the customs point in Boulogne for several hours, and even up to a day, due to faulty paperwork.
While that should improve with time, and IT issues should be resolved, Seafood Scotland warned they could see the “destruction of a centuries-old market” if it does not.
Fergus Ewing, Scottish secretary for the rural economy, said the right balance between speed and scrutiny must be found.
“It is far better for problems to be identified and resolved here in Scotland,” he said.
SB Fish’s Buesa, angered at suggestions that traders were not prepared, said all his paperwork was correct and demanded to know why business leaders were not making more of a fuss.
He owns the business with his father, has been exporting for 28 years and employs about 50 people. “I’m in the trenches here,” he said. “It’s gridlock.”