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Britain’s Shellfish Industry Faces Collapse After Government Fails to Warn of Export Ban

The EU has moved to clarify that live British mussels, clams, scallops, and cockles cannot be exported

Shellfish traders pick through catch in the UK Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

The British fishing industry cannot export live shellfish to Europe indefinitely. Now treated as a “separate country,” the U.K. cannot send live bivalve molluscs (LBMs) — including mussels, scallops, and clams — to the European Union without them first being purified in tanks of seawater. While pre-purified shellfish, essentially “ready to eat,” can be exported, the process decreases their shelf life and means that delays in export — which have been compounded by the Brexit transition since 1 January 2021 — can be more damaging than prior to 2021.

While British fishing beds for shellfish are divided into classes of cleanliness, and “Class A” beds’ shellfish can be exported without purification, a very small proportion of U.K. waters meet the criteria and those that do often do so only seasonally.

This indefinite ban goes against what British shellfishers were told to expect by the government in the run-up to Brexit. According to Politics Home, Fisheries Minister Victoria had briefed the industry that the expected ban would end on April 21 just weeks before the end of the Brexit transition period. It leaves huge and small shellfish exporters facing the choice of investing in purification equipment or having no means of sending multimillion pound catches to Europe. Tellingly, multiple shellfish exporters are angry not with the EU — whose policy on the export of LBMs has not changed — but with the government, for misleading them on the safeguarding of the industry after Brexit. One leading Morecambe Bay exporter told I News that “We’ve come to the end of the road. We just don’t know what to do. The Government have got to get hold of this with both hands because they have properly screwed this up.

“We’ve never had this problem before with the EU. This is total destruction. This are just absolutely destroying us. I guarantee the industry will collapse. It’s pretty much everything. It’s a total ban.”

Despite the scale of catch in Britain’s shellfish industry, particularly in Morecambe Bay, the Orkney Islands, and south west England, Britain’s seafood consumption culture remains immature in comparison to the European nations like France and Spain that receive hundreds of millions of pounds of U.K. catch each year up to 2021. While London’s seafood restaurants — and those in coastal fishing towns — are increasingly visibly championing British shellfish, they simply can’t make a dent in the shortfall from such a huge market. Without government intervention, thousands of shellfish traders will be left high and dry.

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