Scottish minister urges seafood to grab trade opportunities, irrespective of Brexit
While the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will inevitably have an impact on Scottish seafood – with a lot of uncertainty surrounding trading relationships and the practicalities of exporting products – Fergus Ewing, cabinet secretary for the rural economy, is urging the sector to overcome these challenges and seize opportunities as they are presented.
Delivering the keynote address at the Scottish Seafood Summit in Aberdeen, Ewing stressed the importance of seafood to Scotland’s economy, and also the success of its exports, which have increased by 111 percent over the past 10 years.
Today, seafood accounts for 60 percent of Scotland’s food exports, compared to England’s 6 percent, he highlighted.
“We have a marvelous industry worth a huge amount of money – GBP 3 billion [USD 3.9 billion, EUR 3.5 billion] – it’s world-leading, as is the reputation we have for the quality of our produce and the cleanliness of our waters,” he said. “This fuels success in the fish sector, but also spreads out to other parts of the food and drink sector; it enables other businesses to build on [the seafood industry’s] success worldwide. The seafood demand across the world is increasing – consumption has more than doubled in the past 50 years, and that can only increase [because] the amount of arable land is finite, and in almost every case is already being used. The potential to create more protein lies in the world’s seas and oceans.”
Ewing pointed out that almost 5,000 people work on Scottish-registered fishing vessels, while seafood processing provides over 8,000 jobs, and aquaculture, including the supply chain, supports more than 12,000 jobs, many of them in rural areas.
But the sector does face challenges from the consequences of leaving the E.U., he said.
“Nobody can be absolutely certain about how all this will unfold. But what I want the industry to do at the highest level is grab the opportunities as they continue to be realized and I want to overcome the challenges with you,” Ewing said. “However the Brexit cards fall on the table, my job as your minister, is to make the most of any opportunities and do everything we can to overcome the challenges.”
He conceded that a no-deal Brexit, in his opinion, could potentially have “severe disproportionate impacts” on Scotland in general – on food supply, on medicine, transport and rural matters.
“It’s expected that the price of some foods and drink are likely to be significantly affected. I gather that salad and fruits may be the first in line to be scarce,” he said. “Within the seafood economy, the inshore fishing sector is perhaps nearest to the Brexit fire in the event of a no-deal. Access to markets are of course critical, with seven out of 10 of Scotland’s top export markets being E.U. states, accounting for 77 percent of the export value. This is a major deal. The potential risks … can be really significant. And if there are non-tariff barriers such as the increased requirement for certification and goods and customs checks, delays at ports – these all have potential to be extremely damaging.”
Access to labor is already an issue for the sector, he said, while migrant labor shortages could further exacerbate the situation, as the U.K. seafood processing workforce currently comprises 70 percent non-U.K./E.U. nationals. There is also a lot of uncertainty when it comes to industry funding, particularly as it’s not yet clear what support will replace E.U. schemes like the European Maritime and Fisheries Funds (EMFF), or how future quotas will be arranged in the United Kingdom, he said.
While it’s not possible for the Scottish government to fully mitigate all potential impacts, Ewing explained that actions have been taken to minimize disruptions, such as developing a practical approach to meet E.U. requirements for export health certificates (EHCs). It has also been engaging with all of the country’s main retailers.
“My ask is always that they do what they can to consider Scottish produce. And I have to say that my dealings with them have almost always been constructive and positive. The impression I get is that they, as the major players in the food sector, take the responsibility very seriously,” Ewing said. “They want to do what they can in order to help deal with any practical problems arising in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Certainly, there’s lots of preparations and plans that they have put in place to deal with that.”
The government is also using the 14 specialists that it has placed in key global markets to assess further opportunities for Scottish seafood.
“I have determined that whatever the Brexit cards are dealt and however they may fall on the table, we’ve got a great product. And we also have the potential to promote it further to markets throughout the world. I do feel that’s an untapped potential and I do want to work with [industry] to see how we can tackle that together,” Ewing said.
He has also been urging the U.K. government, and particularly Michael Gove – U.K. secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs – to “better recognize” the importance of the seafood sector and to support its efforts. Specific requests include removing the need for EHCs and border inspections, and creating a system at ports – particularly at the country’s main port of Dover – which would prioritize seafood lorries and vehicles carrying other perishable goods. If these products are subjected to delays, the consignments could be rendered valueless, he said.
Although Gove appears to have ruled out any prioritization of goods at this stage, citing practical difficulties, Ewing confirmed that Scottish government will continue to press this issue further.
“I don’t think it’s beyond the wit of man to provide a means of enabling such prioritization for obvious sound, commercial reasons,” he said.
It will also forge ahead with its export growth plans.
“Despite the uncertainties of Brexit, we are working closely with industry to map out a future framework to support both the catching and processing sectors. Our Food and Drink Strategy 2030, which was developed in partnership with industry, sets out a clear ambition to double the overall value of the sector to GBP 30 billion (USD 39.1 billion, EUR 34.9 billion) by 2030,” Ewing said. “And the seafood industry is at the heart of that growth.”
Addressing Scottish seafood exporters, he added, “I am confident that you have the potential to deliver on achieving that target. After all, you’ve doubled your export performance in the last 10 years, so you have the potential to do so again.”
“Whatever the opportunities are, we’ll grab them,” Ewing said. “And whatever the challenges are, we will work with you to overcome them for the future of the good of one of Scotland’s greatest and finest industries.”