Cutbacks at Whitby Seafoods add to pressure on prawn fishery

A switch to cheaper foods in response to the cost of living crisis is one reason put forward for the announcement by Whitby Seafoods of the start of consultations with staff about a round of redundancies of up to 40 staff at its Whitby factory.

The Whitby site produces finished scampi widely carried by supermarkets across the British Isles. The company, which also has a major operation in Kilkeel, is a major buyer of prawn tails across the UK (Fishing News, 30 March, ‘Scampi: A Kilkeel success story’).

The company had previously warned that increased paperwork and delay, created as a result of the Brexit deal, was already risking jobs and putting price pressure on fishermen. The so-called Windsor Framework, agreed earlier this year, has done little, it says, to reduce the post-Brexit costs created by the need for veterinary certification of tails shipments from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, where the primary processing of the tails takes place.

Whitby Seafoods employs up to 200 staff at the height of the season in Kilkeel, as well as a staff of 188 in Whitby. The Whitby site receives daily shipments of fresh processed prawn tails from the Kilkeel operation, that are then processed into the finished, oven-ready scampi product that has underpinned the expansion of the prawn tail market over the last three decades, safeguarding many jobs at sea.

In a statement, the company said that ‘regrettably’, production and office jobs in Whitby are at risk. The consultation would stretch over the coming weeks as it sought to minimise impacts across the sector, it said.

Whitby Seafoods managing director Daniel Whittle said: “Our excellent and hardworking colleagues are the backbone of our business, and we are sad that the challenging external environment has left us with no choice other than to take this step.”

The success of the UK scampi market over the last few decades has allowed a substantial increase in Nephrops landings. It is particularly important for the Irish Sea Nephrops fleet, as the hydrology of the Irish Sea creates a markedly different population dynamic to that found in many other prawn fisheries, with very high densities of smaller prawns on the ground, and a regular and reliable recruitment of juvenile prawns to the fishery each year.

The fishery has long been the focus of attention due to its reliance on the use of foreign crew, many of whom were on transit visas and therefore not permitted to work on inshore grounds, where much of the prawn fishery takes place.

The announcement comes at a time when some in the catching sector were expressing relief at the new moves by the Home Office to add fishing to the Shortage Occupation List, reducing uncertainties about the use of the transit visa.

However, with scampi producers facing increasingly fierce competition on supermarket shelves from cheaper products, such as mass-produced chicken, prawn buyers have repeatedly said that ambitions to pay more for landings, which would translate directly to higher crew earnings, are out of reach.

In its most recent set of accounts filed at Companies House in 2021, Whitby Seafoods Ltd posted turnover of £59.2m and an operating profit of £4.8m.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

Sign up to Fishing News’ FREE e-newsletter here

(Main image: Whitby Seafoods Facebook)


Subscribe to Fishing News magazine today; never miss an issue and save 55%!