Scots leaders press for help for prawn sector
Little prospect of early market recovery
Scottish industry leaders are exploring with the Scottish government ways to help the struggling Nephrops sector, reports Tim Oliver.
Demand plummeted due to Covid-19, and although it has recovered a little, the sector is still struggling, in North East England and Northern Ireland as well as in Scotland.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, which is examining the impact of coronavirus on the Scottish industry, industry leaders said that the worst hit had been the shellfish sector, and Nephrops in particular.
John Anderson, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation (SFO), the UK’s biggest PO, said that the Nephrops sector supply chain had come together ‘to try to brainstorm what we need to do to get us moving in the right direction again’.
He said that demand had ‘practically fallen of a cliff’ from mid-March to early May. Most of the prawn fleet had been tied up, and those who still had a market were being paid a fraction of the usual price.
All the main Scottish freezer processors, including the SFO, halted production, as did most fresh operators. Some smaller operations continued trading, but prices were low and barely viable for most SFO members.
The outcome was that the value of Nephrops landings by the SFO fleet this year was down over 50%, representing a 30% price decrease on average across the board.
“That is grim by any stretch of the imagination,” the SFO chief told the committee. “The reality is that coronavirus has majorly impacted on the Nephrops value chain, and it looks like it will take quite some time to fully recover.”
He said that any further market failures resulting from second waves of Covid-19, lockdowns and so on would have a serious impact on the viability of the industry.
“Nephrops vessels were tied up with no income for a significant time period earlier this year,” he told the committee. “Although they are now mostly back at sea, profitability has greatly diminished. It would be fair to assume that back-up reserves would have dwindled by now, so I doubt this fleet would be particularly resilient to further significant shocks.”
In view of this ‘worrying prospect’, he and industry colleagues have been in dialogue with Scottish cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing, Marine Scotland and Scotland Food and Drink officials about setting up a ‘Nephrops sector-specific resilience initiative’.
This would aim to identify actions to enable a sustained economic recovery throughout the Nephrops supply chain and ‘ultimately try to drive this sector forward post-Covid and into a post-Brexit environment as well’.
He hoped that a formal initiative would be established in the near future. “There will be supply side and demand-driven initiatives; no doubt, new marketing and promotional strategies, quality initiatives, product differentiations and so on,” he told the committee.
“The question is to what extent that will really make an impact and a difference. We are concerned about the viability of parts of not just the Nephrops fleet but the onshore processing sector.”
He added that, depending on future developments, ‘we may well have to seek some additional emergency hardship funding – it is very difficult to say at this stage’.
Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the SFF, said that the coronavirus pandemic had hit the sector very quickly, and some parts of it very hard.
“It was apparent pretty quickly that the shellfish part of the fleet was the most immediately hit – initially, the very smallest part of that fleet, and then the slightly larger vessels,” she told the committee.
The whitefish fleet had continued to operate, but ‘in a very significantly altered way and serving a very volatile marketplace’, while the seasonal pelagic sector ‘escaped unscathed, compared with the others’. “The shellfish part of the catching sector was certainly the most significantly affected,” she said.
Jimmy Buchan, chairman of the Scottish Seafood Association, said that the shellfish sector was ‘probably still only at 50% of capacity for where it should be at this time of year’, and remained a concern.
“It is a high-value export market,” he told the committee. “Until we see some sort of normality return to how people go on holiday or travel on business, we will find a reduced market for that product.”
He said there was a ‘new normal’, with social distancing reducing capacity in restaurants by 50%, which reduced consumption by that amount.
“Covid-19 is certainly having a serious effect on the hospitality sector,” he said.
Remote communities under threat
Asked about support for the shellfish sector, the Scottish industry leaders said that the Scottish and Westminster governments had acted quickly, and that they generally welcomed the financial help that had been given.
“Without that help, I am pretty sure that a number of these businesses would not be here right now,” Jimmy Buchan told the committee.
But he said that a number of shellfish businesses were still struggling. “I have asked, and I continue to ask, that the governments look at this situation on a case-by-case basis.”
He said that some shellfish businesses provided vital employment in remote areas of Scotland. If they were not helped, the businesses and the skills handed down over generations would be lost for good, even when the industry recovers.
It was very difficult to stimulate enough demand for shellfish in local economies to save businesses, despite efforts to do so, he said. “Until we can get international trade moving at pace and in volume, we will be in a very difficult position.”
Jimmy Buchan said that one of the main things needed was a replacement for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), and that the industry was engaging with the Scottish and UK governments on this. “That will be crucial to growing this industry going forward.”
Inward investment was needed onshore, and that could only come with government incentives. “We have to start looking at the long term and the bigger picture. With that, I am confident that communities and business can grow,” he told the committee. This would create a thriving industry, and money coming back to the government through taxes, he said. “We have to get the investment to get the return.”
He said there were ‘huge challenges’, but they were critical to the future. Without investment, fish may be landed abroad, ‘and the economic benefit will be lost to the communities’.
He said: “This is a huge opportunity, and it is time that we all got together to start working collectively, instead of trying to stop and resist where this industry wants to go.
“If we get the fisheries and the investment onshore correct, that will create wealth and job prospects, which will go on for generations to come.”
Elspeth Macdonald said that in terms of support, it was important that any future arrangements should ‘allow us to make those quick, agile and necessary responses to whatever situations we find ourselves in’.
That was one of the reasons the SFF had been keen not to see a lot of prescriptive rules in the fisheries bill that would prevent governments and local communities from moving quickly, she said.
“The way that the four parts of the UK were able to respond differently to their local needs was evidence of how we need to have systems that have sufficient flexibility for communities to be able to do things,” the SFF chief told the committee.