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Brexit / French border delays add to ‘perfect storm’ for local fish processing company

Additional paperwork a massive burden to small companies

QA Fish managing director Robert Williamson.
Robert Williamson of QA Fish.

A SHETLAND seafood processing company is holding off from exporting fresh fish to the European Union until the current delays experienced at the French border have been sorted.

Robert Williamson of Scalloway-based QA Fish said because the post-Brexit trade deal had only been reached days before the end of the transition period, companies have had next to no time to prepare for the new export regime, which requires a lot of additional paperwork.

And, with ongoing export restrictions for shellfish to China as well as the impact of the lockdown on UK sales, Brexit further added to what he described as a “perfect storm”.

“We decided before Christmas that during the first week in January we would not send anything to Europe until we knew exactly what we needed and how things would work out,” the company director said.

“And according to the news, it is not working out very well. We are affected in that we are losing sales, but we don’t have goods stuck in Scotland that can’t get across the Channel.

“We just have to hold off. Currently, I am not confident at all sending high value goods to France.”

It usually takes 48 hours for fresh fish and shellfish from Shetland to reach the key market at Boulogne-sur-Mer, but transport companies cannot guarantee that schedule anymore.

Any delay in perishable goods reaching this vital market will have an impact on the price paid, and ultimately on the company’s profitability.

“It is a perfect storm that we are in at the moment, for our business especially, between the restrictions on exports to China, now Brexit, and the whole country in a full lockdown which has a big effect on UK sales,” he said.

Williamson, who employs 28 people at the QA Fish processing plant on Blacksness Pier, said new paperwork created as a result of leaving the single market would undoubtedly result in extra cost and a squeeze on margins.

“We sent fish to a customer in Ireland, in the EU, on Tuesday. We have dealt with that customer for the last 15 years and all the paperwork that we ever sent was the invoice,” Williamson said.

“This time, for the shipment of 100 kilos of fish we had to send seven different documents.

“We probably have to employ somebody just to do the paperwork, which will be extra cost, and that affects the price that you can pay on the market.”

Shipments not only require an export health certificate which comes at a price of around £74.50 per shipment/per customer )and issued by Shetland Islands Council), a catch certificate, packing list, a supplier’s declaration, a shipment declaration, a certificate of origin, and a certificate to verify that QA Fish’s premises have been inspected and are fit for purpose.

“People seemed to think that everything was sorted when we got this [Brexit] deal, but far from it. We still have the same amount of paperwork,” he said.

And due the way the post Brexit deal negotiations were handled during the last eleven months, export companies feel they have had very little time to prepare for the moment the UK would leave the single market and the customs union.

“A transition period is to allow for transition; and our transition period ended up to be a few days from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve, in the middle of a pandemic,” Williamson said.

Other local seafood producers such as Scottish Sea Farms said they had been working for some time to prepare for the unknown and expressed confidence that Brexit related obstacles could be overcome.

The company’s head of operations Ewan Mackintosh said: “Within the company, we’ve had a cross-department team in place for over a year now to help ready us for the challenges that might lie ahead, but with an unknown like Brexit it’s hard for any business or sector to prepare 100 per cent.

“So whilst our Shetland processing team has been as busy as ever preparing and packing our salmon for export, we have experienced some delays in getting those fish to market.

“However, the support received from Shetland Islands Council’s environmental health team, along with local transport companies, has been truly above and beyond, and as a sector we have a strong track record of overcoming obstacles.

“So we’re confident that, with a little time and a lot of teamwork between the many different partners involved, we can overcome these Brexit-related obstacles too.”

Managing director of Grieg Seafood, Grant Cumming, said the company had successfully sent salmon to both Ireland and mainland Europe this week.

“We have experienced delays of up to 24 hours due to congestion in the ports but we expect these delays to ease in the coming weeks.”