Fears over EU barriers after Brexit.

A major research study is underway at Hull University to look at potential new markets for lobsters if access to EU markets becomes a problem after Brexit, reports Tim Oliver.

A driving force behind the study is that the Holderness coast region of East Yorkshire is one the most important shellfishing regions in Europe, and exports more than 80% of its catch to the EU. Any disruption of access to the EU market would be potentially hugely damaging to the local shellfish industry.

The North Eastern IFCA, which commissioned the study, applied for EMFF funding for the £91,000-study through the Holderness Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG).

Some 520t of lobsters are landed annually from the East Yorkshire coast lobster fishery. First sale value is around £7m, and the fishery generates £35m a year to the region’s economy and supports 250 fishermen and 200 onshore jobs. Sixty-five vessels operate out of the main port of Bridlington and along the Holderness coast down to the Humber.

Although the focus of the study is on markets for lobsters, it may also look at outlets for crab.

The study will look in particular at how the home market for lobsters can be developed to counter the competition from frozen imports from Canada, as well as looking at markets beyond the EU.

Mike Cohen, chief executive of the Holderness Fishing Industry Group (HIFG) and of the local FLAG, said the uncertainty over Brexit and access to the EU market was an important factor in commissioning the study.

“Every business needs to take stock from time to time, and look at other ways of doing things. That is particularly so in our case, where the vast majority of our sales go to Europe,” he told Fishing News.

“With the uncertainty in the shellfish market we are going to be facing, we really need to look at all the options and possibilities and really understand what it is that we are facing and what we could do about it.”

He said local shellfish merchants have driven the need for the study, though the merchants are closely linked to the fishermen, and they all share the same concerns. While possible tariff barriers are a concern, it is non-tariff delays that are the real worry, as well as a lack of any sense of direction from the government.

“Well over 80% of the catch from this part of the world goes to Europe and, of course, it’s a live market, so it isn’t just the possibility of tariffs that concerns us,” said Mike Cohen, who is also chairman of the NFFO.

“A few extra percentage on costs could be absorbed somewhere in the chain – it’s the non-tariff barriers, it’s inspections, health certificates – any sort of delays at the border when you have a live product that you need to get onto the market as quickly as possible so you retain that quality, that worry us. That’s what we trade on, a very high-quality product.

“You can stack up a load of, say, car parts and wait for clearance but you can’t leave a lorry load of live lobsters – we really need the government to give us some direction on what its plans are for trade.

“The brinkmanship from the government around a ‘no deal’ Brexit and the need to define our trading relationship is particularly concerning – it needs to be sorted out quickly.”

He said that while there had not yet been enough focus on trade issues in Brexit discussions so far this was now ‘ramping up very much’ and there was ‘a great deal of work’ being done now.

“It’s not a panic over the issue, but change is coming, and we need to prepare for it and to look at all the options and plan for different scenarios. It will be interesting to see what the Hull University study produces – they are excellent in the field of marketing, with a good track record of analysing these situations and advising on them.”

David McCandless, chief fishery officer at NEIFCA, which commissioned the study, said it was ‘a very important and timely project’ in view of the uncertainties of the UK’s exit from the EU and possible increased tariffs and levies on live shellfish exports.

It would look at what alternative markets the fishermen along the Holderness coast could access, and how coming out of the EU would give greater flexibility with countries outside of Europe.
“One of the biggest developing markets is the Chinese market, and they are intending to look at that.”

Study looks at UK and other markets

Jeremy Wilcock, business development manager at University of Hull’s Business School, said the study would look at how the local lobster industry could diversify away from its traditional markets in the EU, and the potential to create demand in the UK and other foreign markets.

He said the great majority of lobsters found in UK supermarkets were frozen Canadian animals that could be up to two years old and were of greatly inferior quality to the live lobsters exported to Europe.

The study will aim to look at how more domestic demand and consumer awareness of live lobsters could be created, and will involve surveying the views of stakeholders such as merchants, distributors, retailers, buyers in major supermarkets, restaurants and hotels and the general public.

It will examine consumer attitudes towards lobsters – for example, whether people have been put off by bad experiences with poor quality Canadian lobsters, or whether they just see them as an unaffordable luxury.

“UK households are not keen on the idea of working with unprocessed lobster,” said Jeremy Wilcock. “Perhaps they want something that’s part-processed. Perhaps we can get more lobsters into retailers, albeit at a significant premium. We need to find out if more domestic demand can be created. People don’t realise this high-quality product is going straight past the UK market.”

There is also the option to look at the potential in other foreign markets beyond the EU, such as China.

The report is due in about a year and will analyse the market and make marketing recommendations.

Brexit shellfish downsides

Mike Cohen said shellfish fishermen were particularly vulnerable to the Brexit outcome as they faced a threat to their markets but with no benefit to come from repatriated quotas because they fish non-quota species.

There were possible benefits over issues with gear conflict between shellfish boats and foreign boats that might be alleviated as ‘they won’t bother us anymore, but you could argue there is gear conflict with domestic boats as well’.

“There isn’t the same immediate advantage for shellfish boats as there are for demersal fishermen, who will get a fair share of Channel cod, for example. There is a very unfair distribution of quota for a number of species, and there will be an opportunity to correct that after Brexit.”

‘Lobsters must be stunned before boiling’

The Swiss government has passed a law making it illegal to boil lobsters when they are conscious. They must be stunned first, so they are unconscious.

They can be stunned by electrocution or ‘mechanical destruction of the brain’.

It will also be illegal to transport or hold lobsters in ice – they must be kept in specially-designed crates with internal partitions, so each has its own space, according to the Daily Telegraph.

A Swiss Green Party politician said lobsters have a complex nervous system, are sensitive to pain and ‘suffer martyrdom’ when boiled alive. A former joint chairwoman of the Green Party said Switzerland had ‘pioneering animal protection laws… which are the pride of our country’.

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