Seafood Scotland boosting businesses through Brexit, COVID-19

Published on
October 23, 2020

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on the global seafood supply, forcing suppliers and the organizations that support them, to rethink short- and long-term strategies.

In Scotland, where industry body Seafood Scotland works to improve the value return to the supply chain, the impacts of COVID-19 – compounded by the complications of Brexit – have resulted in a new focus for the organization.

Head of Seafood Scotland Donna Fordyce said her team has developed a strategy to see the Scottish seafood industry through the crisis.

“We normally work at three different B2B levels, helping companies to promote and sell product throughout Scotland, in the wider United Kingdom, and globally,” she told SeafoodSource. “When COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced, it had an immediate negative effect on exports, and on U.K. foodservice. We realized that everything needed to be put on ice while we focused all our energies on practical help to ensure that both COVID-19 and Brexit did as little damage as possible to the sector.”

At the top of the list was a regular update to industry players, to keep them abreast of the latest guidance, and offer advice. Fordyce also organized webinars on important topics and set up an info-hub that acts as a central point for the myriad streams of information coming out of the Scottish and U.K. governments, Food Standards Scotland, and other bodies.

“We ensure that our information is targeted and easily understood. Feedback shows that our bite-sized approach is helping to put the right messages out there,” Fordyce said.

The hub also includes a page where seafood companies can register their consumer-facing services, such as online delivery, fish vans, market stalls, and seafood meal-kit delivery. The page links to the many COVID-19 hubs set up by organizations U.K.-wide when the pandemic hit.

“A number of smaller Scottish companies who could change and adapt their selling patterns started going direct to consumers, who in turn are benefitting from access to fresh fish, langoustine, crab, and lobster. Sales in fishmongers have also benefitted, rising by 300 percent during the pandemic,” she said.  

Seafood Scotland has commissioned research to examine the effects of COVID-19 on shopping habits, to understand if people are continuing to favor local products, and what could be done to encourage any trend.

Not all companies were able to take advantage of the shift in buying habits, and there remains a nervousness in the industry – particularly in the langoustine fleet – which was badly affected by the contraction of the foodservice industry and the collapse of exports.  

“The Spanish market has not come back, and the price crashed, so there is a real worry about how the smaller fleet will get through the winter and into next year. The Christmas season when the shellfish market is normally massive, is also very uncertain,” Fordyce said.

To support the growing number of companies selling direct to consumers, Seafood Scotland initiated consumer-facing work, which was a departure from its traditional B2B role. This work included using chef and author Roy Brett and Billingsgate Seafood School Principal C.J. Jackson to run online seafood preparation master classes for furloughed chefs. Supper clubs were organized by influencers and run by chefs whose restaurants had closed. 

A "Local Heroes" radio, print, and banner advertising campaign was commissioned, using the strapline “Our heroes wear white wellies not capes,” which encouraged people to support their local seafood industry professionals. The work mirrored efforts throughout Europe – especially in the major seafood buying countries Italy, Spain, and France – where the focus has been on encouraging people to support their local fisheries, rather than buying imported products.

Turning to Brexit, Fordyce said in the ongoing absence of information, her organization has been planning for a no-deal outcome, while hoping that a last-minute deal will transpire.

“No-deal means we will trade with Europe on WTO rules from 1 January. 2020, with inherent tariffs and other barriers to trade,” she said. “Langoustine, for instance, will attract a 12 percent tariff, and for other seafood products, the more value-adding that is done, the higher the tariff. This goes against what we have been encouraging companies to do for years, which is to add as much value as possible to the seafood in Scotland.”

Paperwork is set to be a stumbling block for smaller exporters, and work is underway in collaboration with Food Standards Scotland and the Scottish government to set up centrally located hubs, where loads can be inspected by environmental health officers and export health certificates issued. Clarification is still awaited on the proposal to make catch certificates available online.

Seafood Scotland has taken several delegations of exporters and government officials to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France to look at the arrangements put in place at the new border inspection post (BIP) there. All chilled and frozen seafood must pass through for inspection and customs clearance, but separate BIPs have been proposed for live shellfish.

“We were impressed by the fast-track arrangements being made to direct lorries straight off the ferries and the Channel tunnel to Boulogne-sur-Mer to reduce hold-ups, and we are assured by the U.K. government that arrangements are being made to fast-track time-sensitive goods onto ferries at our end,” she said.

Nevertheless, Fordyce said she fears that the months ahead will prove to be challenging for the seafood industry. But she said her team is ready with practical help and advice to help the industry survive the unprecedented difficulties it is now facing.

Photo courtesy of Seafood Scotland

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