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Seafood exporters facing 'horrendous' problems, says Caithness business owner

By Alan Hendry

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Diane Watt and husband Andrew (Watty) of the Holborn Fishing Company.
Diane Watt and husband Andrew (Watty) of the Holborn Fishing Company.

The owner of a Caithness-based shellfish company has spoken of the "horrendous" problems facing seafood exporters after trade was effectively brought to a standstill because of a Brexit bottleneck.

Diane Watt, who runs Holborn Fishing Company with husband Andrew, has had to tell local fishermen to stop supplying their produce for the time being as it can't get into the European Union because of border delays.

She said businesses such as theirs that buy and sell live crabs and lobsters were unable to reach crucial export markets because of the "masses of paperwork" following the end of the Brexit transition period. She is urging politicians to step in and help.

"For one week you'll sustain it but you can't sustain it indefinitely, so we need people to shout as loud as they can," Mrs Watt said.

Holborn Fishing Company, based just outside Thurso, deals with about 15 self-employed fishermen, some of whom work seasonally, at Helmsdale, Lybster, Wick, Staxigoe, Auckengill, John O'Groats and Scrabster.

Mrs Watt said: “I had to make a phone call to them all and say 'you have to stop, I can't let you fish any more, I can't sell your stuff'. It's just horrendous.

"It's devastating for them and devastating for us. We put a brand new boat in the water just under a year ago and it is a massive overhead."

Mrs Watt and her husband, who is known as Watty, took delivery of the 18.8m Osprey (WK 4) in March 2020, shortly before the first lockdown. The boat cost £1.7 million and the licence for that size of vessel is around £1 million.

“We have seven crew aboard that boat just now and they have to come in early so they're not going to get wages," Mrs Watt said. "We work out of Scrabster half the year and last summer, from about May until October, we worked out of Kinlochbervie.”

The Holborn Fishing Company's 18.8m vessel Osprey in Thurso Bay.
The Holborn Fishing Company's 18.8m vessel Osprey in Thurso Bay.

She warned that shellfish intended for export will only last three days at the most.

“The paperwork involved with the Brexit carry-on is phenomenal for the buyers – not so much for us, because I sell to a third party," Mrs Watt said. "Our buyer told me that his girls in the office are working from seven in the morning until two the following morning, and back in again at seven, and that's not viable.

"From what I can gather, all the shellfish buyers have been asked to stop with a view to try and fight to get things changed and be able to run properly.

"The French are coming in through our borders no problem at all, but we can't get out without masses of paperwork."

Holborn Fishing Company deals with Glasgow-based shellfish buyer MacNeil Shellfish.

"I collect the stuff as normal, I give them the weights, and I now have to put their health certificate number on it, their licence number on it, each individual boat, each individual species, and where and what region it was caught. That's what I have to do, which is more than I used to, but it's nothing compared to what they're having to do,” Mrs Watt said.

"They go to Glasgow with that load. When that load is inspected in Glasgow they cannot pick up going down the road like they used to. Once that lorry leaves their yard in Glasgow, that is them – they cannot put any more in it at all.

"MacNeil Shellfish is probably the biggest Scottish shellfish buyer and if they can't get it through, nobody is going to do it. They just can't cope with it any longer.

Diane Watt and husband Andrew (Watty) with sons Craig, Ian and Danny in Whitby at the launch of the family firm's new boat, Osprey, in early March last year.
Diane Watt and husband Andrew (Watty) with sons Craig, Ian and Danny in Whitby at the launch of the family firm's new boat, Osprey, in early March last year.

“Trying to get across the border [into France] is just horrendous – they are delayed for days at a time.

"Once it's in that lorry, shellfish only lasts three days maximum. It really needs to be out of there before that – it just dies. These guys can't afford that.

"MacNeil had done trial runs in the lead-up to it and they were working okay, but now that everybody is running after New Year it's just chaos – absolute chaos."

She added: “It will have to change. Scottish buyers are stopping.

“There are masses of businesses and all their customers have been told 'we cannot take your stuff, you have to stop fishing now'.

"It's all relative to the size – it's relative to the sizes of their boats and livelihoods. We need income and they need income as well.

"This problem we have just now has to sort itself."

Most of the shellfish caught around Caithness and Sutherland goes to European markets, notably France, Spain and Portugal, but some is destined for China.

The UK government said a range of measures had been put in place to ensure the industry was prepared to meet new export requirements.

A spokesperson repeated the message from earlier this week, saying: "We are working closely with the industry to help understand and address the issues they are experiencing. The UK and French systems are working, but we are contacting exporters, their representatives and transporters to help them understand the requirements to keep their goods moving.

"It is vital that exporters check they have entered in details correctly and ensure that they have provided the transporter of the goods with the correct documentation."

The Watts have been in business for more than 20 years as Holborn Fishing Company. Mr Watt has 40 years' experience as a fisherman.

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