The UK shellfish sector and politicians are blasting reports that some live shellfish exports from the United Kingdom to the EU could be banned “indefinitely” post-Brexit -- despite assertions by the government the ban would last only until April 21.

The ban could have a devastating impact on roughly £20 million (€22.7 million/$27.3 million) in exports of live shellfish, including oysters, mussels, clams, cockles and scallops, according to the Shellfish Association of Great Britain (SAGB), which represents the sector.

SAGB CEO David Jarrad said a range of both large and small companies could be affected by the ban.

Live bivalve molluscs (LBM) trade to the EU
  • Seafish estimates that the UKs live bivalve molluscs (LBM) trade to the EU was worth around £15m (12,000 metric tons) in 2019.
  • Most of this trade consists of mussels, oysters, cockles and clams.
  • The products exported are a combination of farmed and wild harvested product.
  • The current issue affecting the export of LBM relates mainly to product sourced from areas with a specific water quality classification (known as Class B waters).
  • Not all of the LBM trade will be affected by this current restriction on exports; Live bivalve molluscs such as oysters, mussels, clams, cockles and scallops can continue to be exported to the EU if they're harvested from Class A waters
  • This restriction is expected to have an impact particularly on the aquaculture sector in England and Wales, and for cockle producers.

"We are talking about the major part of the shellfish aquaculture sector in England and Wales being impacted," he said. “There is currently severe uncertainty with regard to the future for this sector."

Total shellfish sales from the UK to the EU are around £400 million (€454 million/$545 million) annually, but that includes lobster, crab, langoustines and other species.

The shellfish industry in Britain accounts for almost half the value of landings of all fishery products in the UK, according to the SAGB.

Last year, the UK government told live bivalve mollusc producers exports would not be interrupted by Brexit, Jarrad said.

At issue are the specific grades of shellfish shipped to the EU. Exports of live bivalve molluscs are graded depending on the water in which they are fished.

Those from "Class A" waters have almost no contaminants and can be exported direct for human consumption. The EU import rules on those are unaffected by Brexit, Jarrad said.

However, shellfish from "Class B" waters, which have slightly more contaminants, may not meet the current EU export requirements.

Traditionally, "Class B" shellfish go through a purification process called “depuration” to clean them before they can be eaten, which usually takes place in Europe.

The EU has a ban on the importation of un-depurated live bivalve molluscs from third countries -- which since Brexit includes the UK.

The SAGB is working with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on a solution, Jarrad said, but it's unclear the timeline for any progress.

Political blowback

Alistair Carmichael, member of parliament for Orkney and Shetland, requested an urgent plan of action to negotiate an end to the ban, which risks severely harming scallop producers in both Orkney and Shetland.

The ban "would be catastrophic for isles scallop catches,” said Carmichael in a letter to the UK Fisheries Minister.

“You cannot tell people there is no problem when reality is staring you in the face."

Ministers at DEFRA have known about the ban "for some time," Carmichael said, but failed to tell the industry.

“There is no excuse for giving false hope to exporters," he wrote.