Have Brexit, pollution and the pandemic killed the great British shellfish industry?

Every time they send a load over, they have to produce a 14-page export health certificate and have it signed by an official vet to confirm it is free from disease. ‘It has to be manually printed by the vet and stamped 43 times and have his signature on it 45 times and we have to cross out all the exact bits that are not relevant to our specific export,’ says Sarah. ‘[And it has to be done] in English and in French.’ There is ‘huge margin for human error’, not to mention the fact that there are hardly any vets certified to inspect live bivalve molluscs.

Nicky heats up a pan of garlicky mussels for us to try. I ask if they have lost money since all this began. They look at each other and laugh. ‘It’s difficult to put a firm figure on it,’ says John. ‘We had seven months last year where we were not allowed to send a single thing,’ says Sarah.

If they lose their exports, they will go out of business. Couldn’t they purify the mussels here? ‘To purify the volume we produce, that capacity doesn’t exist in the whole of the UK put together,’ says John. And there’s too little demand in the UK to rely solely on that market.

A possible solution

For some fishermen, though, selling locally could be part of the answer. Martin Laity’s family have had oyster beds in the River Fal in Cornwall for generations. He can trace his family’s fishing lineage in Cornwall back to 1542. Their business, which mainly sells Queen scallops and oysters, and exports all over the world, kept going through both world wars. ‘Then at the start of Brexit, we were shut down for two and a half months,’ says Laity.

He has spent 14 months ‘intensely trying to sort out the mess’, liaising with Defra and customs officers as he tries to get some help for his fellow oystermen and fishermen. ‘The industry can’t exist without export. There’s no question about it . Who are you going to get in the UK to consume 2,000 tonnes of winkles a year?’

Laity, 52, a father-of-two who hopes to pass on his business, Sailor’s Creek Shellfish, to his children, set up a market called The Food Barn in Tregew during lockdown, selling local produce including his shellfish: ‘It’s working. We sell hundreds of oysters on a Saturday morning market.’

Restaurants and other UK customers are starting to come through, too. ‘People are thinking, well, use it or lose it. The numbers, this January in particular, have been quite phenomenal. We’re selling well over 1,000 oysters a day in the UK – unheard of in the past.’


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