Seafood cluster voices concerns over future trade with Iceland and Norway

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 15 Nov 2018

Theresa May put a Brussels-agreed Brexit deal before her Cabinet ministers yesterday, the culmination of almost two years of negotiations.

By any luck, questions surrounding the future of Britain’s trading relationship with the European Union will have some light shed on them once the full terms of the deal are sifted through.

But for Grimsby’s seafood industry, that is not all they need answers to in the upcoming Brexit agreement.

The cluster of seafood processors on the docks want to know how their relationships with their closest trading partners – Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands – are likely to be impacted.

The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued technical guidance in the summer saying it was working to make trade with the EU check-free on seafood produce even if there is a no-deal outcome.

A frictionless arrangement with the EU has been welcomed by North East Lincolnshire’s seafood industry but its greater concern is how fresh fish coming from the European Economic Area (EEA) will be treated after the UK’s exit from the bloc.

Read more: Seafood processing performance under the microscope in major study

Simon Dwyer, spokesman for the representative body Seafood Grimsby and Humber, told those at a food event in Westminster last month that the processing cluster – which employs more than 5,000 people in the region – had approached the government for answers.

He confirmed that Martin Vickers, MP for Cleethorpes, wrote to fisheries minister George Eustice last month on behalf of the seafood industry, calling for reassurances.

Simon Dwyer of the cluster group Seafood Grimsby and Humber.

Mr Dwyer said: “We have seen great growth over the last year. Importantly in terms of trade, 90 per cent of what we import in Grimsby is imported from all over the world, in both fresh format and frozen format.

“In terms of fresh fish, we import most of that from Iceland and Norway – that’s cod, haddock and salmon.

“Critically, some recent papers published by the government regarding Brexit said there would be no requirement for physical checks on cargo moving from the EU. That’s great but we import very little from the EU.

“We have asked the question of Defra about the EEA because there is no clarity at the moment in terms of physical checks – border inspection post checks – on seafood being imported from Iceland or Norway – EEA countries – into Grimsby.”

Read more: Siemens UK boss backs Theresa May's draft Brexit deal

Mr Dwyer told the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) event that the harm any disruption could cause would also impact Norwegian and Icelandic trade. He used his trip to London last month to discuss the issue with the Icelandic ambassador, Stefán Haukur Jóhannesson.

“Stefan is very concerned because [Iceland] send about 50 to 60 containers a week of fresh and frozen fish into the Grimsby seafood processing cluster,” Mr Dwyer said, “and also about 30 to 40 trucks come from Norway every week, with cod, haddock and salmon.”

Inside Icelandic Seachill’s factory in Grimsby, one of the biggest operations in Grimsby’s seafood processing sector.

The issue with border inspections would be that fresh fish could be delayed in reaching the Grimsby processors, meaning it would have less value when selling it on as it would not last as long on supermarket shelves.

Tory MP Mr Vickers laid out the fears in stark terms to the fisheries minister, George Eustice, in his letter dated October 18.

“Border inspections could result in delays of importing fresh fish,” warned the backbencher. “This could result in shelf-life issues and bring severe bottle-neck to our supply chain in Grimsby, as well as possibly impacting fish auction market supplies.

“It is likely the capacity at the present inspection posts cannot handle the extra checks of up to 60 containers per week of this perishable product.”

Read more: 30 new jobs as Grimsby seafood importer turns processor with major investment

Mr Eustice has yet to reply to the letter but a Defra spokeswoman said the government was committed to continuing the current trading arrangements with Iceland and Norway.

“The government has consistently made clear that we want to preserve continuity in trade with our European neighbours, including non-EU member states such as Norway and Iceland, and the Faroe Islands,” said the spokeswoman.

“This is particularly important in the fisheries sector so as to ensure stability of supply for UK processing.”

It is not only the seafood industry which has struggled to get answers out of Defra. The department, which has one of the largest Brexit workloads in Whitehall, has come in for severe criticism for its handling of the withdrawal preparations, with an influential group of MPs saying it had been “hampered by excessive secrecy”.

Icelandic Seachill’s operation.

In a report published by the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday, November 14, the MPs said the department was “too complacent about the levels of disruption or interruption to trade that may be faced”.

“Fundamental issues for food, chemical and animal importers and exporters are yet to be resolved,” said the committee.

“Many businesses have not been given detailed advice on what is required by EU exit, as the department has had very limited engagement with stakeholders until recently.

“The department’s ability to impart specific information has been hampered by excessive secrecy at the centre of government and continuing uncertainty over the outcome of the negotiations.”

That uncertainty is touted to end this week as a Brexit deal edges nearer but, even still, the form of words that was due to be put before cabinet yesterday could be scant on what a future trading agreement will look like.

Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, pictured right,  said it “beggared belief” that seafood businesses were being asked to go into Brexit “blind” on how trade would operate in the future.

The Labour politician said: “After more than two years of negotiations, businesses are as much in the dark today about post-Brexit Britain as they were the day of the referendum result.

“It beggars belief that the government are still so unprepared just five months away from Brexit.

“Businesses are being expected to make their own plans, with very little guidance which does not provide the confidence local businesses tell me they need to continue to invest and trade.

“I will continue to press the government to provide certainty to the highly specialised seafood sector regarding the impact of Brexit. It is intolerable to expect businesses to operate blind at extremely short notice, when most future investment plans are made years in advance.”

Mr Vickers, however, said very little could be known until the details of the exit deal were known.

Speaking to the LEP event two weeks ago, the resort MP said: “I recognise the uncertainty Brexit is causing. The truth is we are never going to be able to give you the certainty you want until the deal is done.

“The prime minister did make one firm very statement at PMQs [on October 31] – we will be leaving the EU on March 29, so that is definite. What transitional arrangements there will be for the various industries here, we simply can’t say.”

A Brexit deal, in theory, could be agreed by ministers and even voted for by MPs before the year is out.

But until trade negotiators are done working out the fine detail, it could still be two years until the exact terms of Grimsby’s future trading terms with the EEA countries of Iceland and Norway are known.

It could, despite this week’s excitement regarding a deal, still be a long wait for the seafood industry.



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