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Governments accused of leaving Scottish seafood processors stranded during ‘hour of greatest need’

Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of Scottish Seafood Association.
Jimmy Buchan, chief executive of Scottish Seafood Association.

Seafood processors have demanded more support in the wake of Covid and Brexit – claiming the industry has been left scrambling “in its hour of greatest need”.

The Scottish Seafood Association (SSA) has accused the UK and Scottish governments of failing to fully help the sector weather the challenges which have emerged over the past year.

It is warning that, without further intervention, jobs will be lost to ports in other countries and “won’t come back”.

In January, after the UK left the European Union, Britain’s fish and shellfish industry suffered an 83% slump in exports – wiping out almost £700 million in income.

Processors found the impact of this further compounded the issues they were already facing from Covid.

Plunge in fish market volumes

This was highlighted when Peterhead fish market found its volume was cut from 10,000 daily boxes to 6,500 during the pandemic – and fell to just 400 post-Brexit.

Exports of Scottish salmon fell by 23% last year, to 72,155 tonnes, compared with 94,315t in 2019.

Financial help has been offered to the seafood and aquaculture sectors through a £23m UK Government scheme to help offset losses caused by delays of exporting to EU countries.

But the SSA says the initiative does not go far enough and has called for greater support.

Its chief executive, Jimmy Buchan, said the pay-outs on offer covered only 50% of the lost cash.

He also said larger businesses were being left out, alongside exporters choosing not to ship smaller consignments because the costs would be greater than the value of the goods.

Mr Buchan said: “The truth is that while the financial support that has been forthcoming has been gratefully received, its partial nature means that businesses are being left in great difficulties in their hour of greatest need.

“There have been a lot of promises relating to smoothing the export path post-Brexit, but very few of them have been delivered.”

The UK government has pledged £100m to help modernise fishing fleets and the processing industry, but details of this funding have yet to emerge.

There is also a further £32m, UK-wide, to replace money which would have come from the EU.

Questions over further funding

But Mr Buchan rounded on the UK Government for failing to spell out how its £100m funding scheme – promised as the Brexit agreement was signed in late December – will work and which businesses stand to benefit.

He added: “This funding package now looks like a convenient headline designed to appease the sector.

“When will they start taking bids, who will be eligible, when will pay-outs be made?

“We need to know but we are greeted with silence on this at every turn.”

There have been a lot of promises relating to smoothing the export path post-Brexit, but very few of them have been delivered.”

Jimmy Buchan, Scottish Seafood Association chief executive.

In March, the Scottish Government announced investment and jobs in the Scottish seafood sector would be supported through a £14m cash pot – Marine Fund Scotland (MFS) – to replace vital EU funding north of the border.

Mr Buchan has now called on Holyrood to use its devolved powers and set out more clarity over how businesses can access its emergency cash.

He added: “They have a £14m fund from the Treasury, which they have known about for some time, yet there are no guidelines and application process in place.

“We know only that all projects must be for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and completed by March 31 2022 – far too tight a timetable for major works.

“It is time for both governments to step up to the plate and back up their promises with meaningful action.

‘Backbone’

“This sector is the backbone of many rural Scottish communities and a source of jobs as well as world-class seafood.

“If we don’t support these businesses and jobs they will be lost to other regions and other countries and they won’t come back.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We recognise the difficulties faced by UK seafood businesses affected by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges of adjusting to new export requirements earlier this year.

“The £23m fund provided by the UK Government, covering the Seafood Disruption Support Scheme and the Seafood Response Fund has so far provided targeted support to 2,000 eligible catching and aquaculture businesses, with further payments to be made this month.

“In the longer term, the prime minister has also announced a further £100m to help rejuvenate the industry and coastal communities across the UK.”

Fergus Ewing

Launching the £14m MFS in March, Fisheries Secretary Fergus Ewing said it would help coastal communities and also the marine environment, driving growth in the country’s “blue economy”.

But he also said the cash – Scotland’s allocation from a much larger pot created to replace European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) support for projects throughout the UK post-Brexit – fell well short of the country’s rightful share.

Mr Ewing described UK Government provision for the new MFS kitty as “wholly inadequate”.

And he argued that Scotland’s “equitable and evidence-based” funding share should be £62m per year, more than four times the size of the MFS pot, based on the EMFF budget for 2021-27 and “our sea area”.

MFS has a one-year budget of £14m, meaning all projects must be completed by March 31 2022.

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