Scottish seafood bosses have accused ministers of being “in denial” over the scale of the problem facing exporters in the post-Brexit world.
The transport of fresh fish and seafood to the continent has been severely disrupted by new customs checks and paperwork since the Brexit transition period ended last month.
Industry insiders have estimated the delays are costing the sector more than £1 million a day.
James Withers, chief executive at industry body Scotland Food and Drink, was scathing in his assessment, telling MPs “the UK has created history in becoming the only country ever to impose economic sanctions on itself”.
Mr Withers, appearing before the Scottish Affairs Committee, said: “There have been some catastrophic decisions taken to create enormous non-tariff barriers.
“We have ended up with a trading regime that has become complex, costly, slow, prone to break down at its best and, at worst, it leaves the door to the EU markets closed altogether.”
“Businesses feel they have just been thrown to the wolves, we’ve had a dreadful first few weeks of trading in the post Brexit world, there’s no way of sugar-coating it”, he added.
Mr Withers said the “biggest challenge” was convincing the UK Government to face up to the scale of the problem.
He said: “The biggest single challenge we have just now is denial, denial from UK government in particular to the scale of the problem.
“We can’t accept that this is short term issues, that it’s teething problems, or even the statement from Defra this week that trade continues to flow smoothly, because it doesn’t, it’s not flowing smoothly and it hasn’t done to five weeks now.”
Scottish Seafood Association boss Jimmy Buchan described January as a “car crash” for exporters and warned that without urgent action “brand Scotland” would be damaged.
He said: “We need we need to cut down the bureaucratic nightmare that our small businesses are enduring.
“It’s not teething problems, it is bureaucratic problems and we need to get (them) resolved right now.
“We’ve got to understand that the small communities, the small businesses, are suffering.
“My biggest concern is that brand Scotland is being damaged right now because of our in action to act to make this work,” he added.
‘A sticking plaster’ for Scottish seafood problem
In a bid to offset the cost of export delays, Boris Johnson announced a £23 million compensation scheme for the fishing industry last month.
Asked if the package is adequate, Mr Withers said: “It’s a sticking plaster at best; the seafood business has been losing about £1 million a day in sales.”
Mr Buchan added: “The £23 million is welcome. Is it enough? I don’t think it is”.
Both Mr Withers and Mr Buchan called on the UK Government to negotiate a “grace period” for the seafood sector while bureaucratic problems are resolved, something that has so far been ruled out.
The House of Commons committee later turned to promises made by the prime minister over increased quota for fishermen in five years’ time.
Mr Johnson’s trade deal will see 25% of EU quota handed back to UK fishermen by 2026, after which the two sides will negotiate over future fishing rights.
The deal allows for the EU or UK to impose tariffs on the other’s exports in the event of serious disagreements over fishing access, leading many to claim the deal will see no major change for the industry.
Mr Buchan was agnostic on the future, telling MPs “we simply do not know” if there will be an uptick in quota and said it would depend on who was prime minister in five years and whether there was the “political will” to restart negotiations.