Shellfish businesses offered funding to cope with coronavirus crisis

Shellfish businesses across Scotland have been offered emergency financial help by ministers on the eve of a report by The Ferret revealing the crisis facing prawn and scallop fishermen.

The Scottish Government announced a £3.5 million package to help large sea fishing vessels survive the coronavirus crisis the day after we asked it to respond to concerns raised by fishing organisations.

The emergency funding has been warmly welcomed by businesses who were facing financial ruin.

Many Scottish boats have been tied up in harbours for weeks due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Although financial support from the Scottish Government was available to some smaller fishing enterprises, others were not entitled until help until the announcement on 17 April.

The crisis has been “causing real hardship” in some coastal communities, according to groups representing shellfishing boats. They were calling for more help from the government amid fears foreign markets they rely on may be lost for good.

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Up to 80 per cent of the Scottish catch – all fish including prawns – is normally destined for international markets, mainly in Europe and Asia. But many trade routes have closed temporarily due to the health emergency, with markets for high value shellfish virtually non-existent.

The UK fishing industry was worth £989 million  in 2018 with Scots boats bringing in more than half of that total – £574m. Scotland has 2,089 registered vessels and 4,860 crew, not just for shellfish.

On 25 March the Scottish Government announced a £5 million assistance package aimed at seafood companies impacted by the collapse in the market for shellfish, and for owners of full-time registered vessels under 12 metres.

The government said that an initial payment of 50 per cent of two months’ average earnings would be made to owners of “all full time Scottish registered fishing vessels of 12 metres length and under”. The vast majority of these are in the creel and dive sectors, many of whom operate in remote and island communities.

A further £10 million package for fish processing businesses was announced by the Scottish Government on 3 April. However, fishermen with boats over 12 metres long were not entitled to financial support, prompting concern over their future.

The new scheme will provide capped payments of up to £21,370 per vessel to businesses with a vessel over 12 metres landing shellfish such as crab, lobster, scallop and langoustine to help them meet fixed costs like insurance.

It will also provide up to £42,740 for businesses operating more than one vessel. Amounts will be graduated by fleet segment and length category.

Commenting on the initial financial support offered, Elaine Whyte, of the Clyde Fishermen’s Association (CFA), had told The Ferret that while her organisation was grateful for the support offered to boats under 12 metres, similar support should be offered to creelers and mobile fishermen, whose boats are “just over that length and who currently have nothing to live on”.

She added: “It’s been extremely difficult. Most of our boats aren’t large concerns at all – family businesses and coastal boats. We have a mix of under 12 metre and over 12 metre boats, which are all fairly similar in terms of markets – they land live or fresh shellfish mainly.

“Most lost the bulk of their markets two to three weeks ago and the majority of boats are now tied up. They are unable largely to get to sea as processing facilities have closed down.”

The market for some shellfish has ‘completely died’

CFA represents 250 members and 50 boats. Whyte had called on help from the government and said: “We can’t stress enough how urgently help is needed for some. It’s hard to complain in such times of humanitarian crisis, but it’s the desperate families behind the crisis in fishing who we are most concerned about.”

The Ferret put CFA’s concerns to the Scottish Government on the 16 April and asked for a comment in response, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced the new funding on 17 April.

Whyte welcomed the news and thanked ministers. She said: “We greatly welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement which offers a much needed lifeline to the coastal community boats over 12 meters in length.

“This allows them to potentially survive as businesses and support their families through this difficult time. We have always felt a support scheme across all coastal fishing boats in need was the correct way to go.”

Other groups and individuals had told The Ferret how coronavirus had impacted livelihoods. The market for prawns has “completely died”, said Mark Roberston, a fisherman from Peterhead. “There are virtually no sales and the fleet is in port, perhaps 200 boats affected – and every coastal community,” he added.

Roberston explained that Easter is normally good for business, with Scottish fishermen selling to countries such as France, Spain and Italy, markets they rely heavily on.

“They eat prawns like we eat pies and we’ve now lost the window to sell to the summer Mediterranean market this year,” he continued. “The problems will be long term now and it could be at least a year before we seen any pick-up and that may even be limited.”

According to Natalie Bell of Seafood Scotland, many international routes are closed but businesses were still working to ensure seafood is available to consumers in the UK.

“Upwards of 80 per cent of the Scottish catch is usually destined for international markets, and those routes are currently either cut off because of lack of transport options, or increased price of freight,” Bell said.

Seafood usually goes in the cargo holds of passenger planes, which keeps transit costs down. Bell said that so-called ghost flights – planes carrying only cargo – are “prohibitively expensive” for most seafood exporters to use just now.

“Even if the seafood could find an export route, restaurants and hotels are closed all over the world, so there is no real market for it,” she added.

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Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association Limited, said that a number of sectors within the industry are facing hardship due to lost markets.

“Those are mainly nephrops and scallop,” he explained. “Some are operating to maintain any demand that arises. The whitefish sector is faring slightly better although we are having to manage supply and demand very closely.”

Alistair Sinclair, national coordinator with the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, said most of his members were on lockdown, with sales minimal. “Some are managing to fish in isolation and selling in ports like Ullapool and Kyle, other places too. All of course without making a profit at heart, but making a living for themselves.

Open Seas, which campaigns for sustainable fishing, urged people to support local fishermen while questioning the Scottish Government’s management of fisheries.

“In the face of adversity seafood fishermen around our coasts have started selling locally, and consumers have been quick to support them, we recommend readers do too,” said Phil Taylor of Open Seas.

The crisis has “shown the worst aspects of the way our fisheries are managed,” he argued. “As we have seen in the last three weeks, many fisheries are not resilient – in part due to them being managed as monocultures targeting a single species and discarding all else.”

Taylor added: “We have known this for some time. A 2018 Scottish Government paper investigated fisheries exposure to no-deal Brexit scenarios and found that fishing methods such as scallop dredging were highly exposed in all scenarios – economically unsustainable, as well as environmentally so. Yet, rather than seek to address this, fisheries managers have failed to act and so this crisis has seen many in that industry staring over the precipice.”

Explaining the new package of financial support, fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing, said: “This latest funding benefits more than 220 Scottish vessels over 12 metres. Overall, more than 1,000 fishing and aquaculture businesses are now eligible for funding to help them, their crews and staff through this unprecedented period.

He added: “Support being provided to businesses operating vessels over 12 metres finalises the relief we can offer to the sea fishing and aquaculture sectors to mitigate the economic and social impact of Covid-19 having exhausted current transitional funding streams. ”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “We welcome this further tranche of financial support for the Scottish fishing fleet, much of which has been under severe pressure since the Covid-19 pandemic hit our markets, first abroad and then at home.

“Most of the Scottish shellfish fleet has been tied up for almost a month now, as restrictions and lockdowns mean restaurant, hospitality and foodservice markets around the world that normally enjoy Scottish seafood, have essentially disappeared.”

Photo thanks to iStock/Lemanieh.

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