August 1st 2019

JUST consider these figures for a second: 911, 1,081 and 1,282.

If plotted on a graph, they would show a steep but steady rise of 40 per cent from the first figure to the last.

But what do they mean?

They represent the average amount of salmon exported to Europe through the Channel each week - in thousands of kilos - between October and Christmas.

So, in an average week in October, about 911,000kg of Scottish salmon goes across to Boulogne. This rises to 1,081,000kg a week in November and then again to 1,282,000kg per week in the run-up to Christmas.

But put a no-deal Brexit into this progression and then it is easy to see why there is an issue here.

At the moment, the UK is due to leave the EU without a deal right at the point when salmon exports start to really pick up for the Christmas rush.

To say the timing could hardly have been worse is something of an understatement.

Indeed, that is one of the ironies of Brexit. The farmed salmon sector was not ready for the previous deadline and would have struggled to have kept exports to the continent on track had we left on March 29, as planned, without a deal.

But while farmers welcomed the six-month delay, glad to have time to sort through the certification issues and make sure everything is as ready as it can be, they know the new October 31 deadline will bring its own problems.

In an ideal world, farmers would hold salmon back for the first few days and weeks after a no-deal Brexit rather than risk getting the fish jammed up in queues at the Channel.

But this is very difficult to do when the production cycle is geared towards a big, end-of-year push to get huge amounts of fish to the continent in time for Christmas.

Before the March deadline, the big Brexit issue for the sector was certification.

Farmers were worried - with good cause - that the huge increase in the need for Export Health Certificates after a no-deal Brexit would cause terrible delays at the Scottish end which would hold up consignments destined for the continent.

Those issues are not completely resolved but the sector, along with the hauliers, the Scottish government and the local authorities, have used the time since March to put plans in place which should alleviate the worst of these certification issues.

The DFDS base at Larkhall - which dispatches most salmon to the continent - is in line to become a certification hub and South Lanarkshire Council has plans to hire enough new environmental health officers to cope with the upsurge in demand for certificates, should we leave the EU without a deal.

As a result, attention has now switched to logistics and the possibility - some would say the probability - that lorry loads of salmon will leave Scotland on time but then become snarled up in queues to Dover and Folkestone with lorries from every other export sector, all trying to navigate chaotic new border arrangements put in place in haste if there is no deal.

The French authorities have worked hard to convince us that routes on the French side, from Pas de Calais, will be kept clear and fish consignments will be fast-tracked to the main market in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Unfortunately, there is not the same confidence in arrangements on the English side of the Channel.

First there is the issue of drivers' hours. At the moment, a load of salmon can get from Larkhall to Boulogne on one driver. A delay of an hour or more would mean either taking two drivers (which is impractical on almost every level) or enforcing a rest break for the single driver taking the load.

Then there is the market in Boulogne itself. If a driver has to take a rest break - either enforced by drivers' hours regulations or because of delays getting to the Channel - then the load may arrive too late for the market.

The Boulogne-sur-Mer market only normally operates in the morning so arriving late will miss connecting trucks and potentially put the salmon 24 hours behind schedule.

It is at that point that the French supermarkets tend to ask for massive discounts on the salmon they buy.

The only possible solution to this is to have dedicated lanes on the English side of the Channel so seafood products can be fast-tracked to the Eurotunnel entrance and to the Channel ports and then on to Boulogne on the designated lanes on the French side.

The UK government had rejected all requests for designated seafood lanes but we are hopeful ministers will think again.

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation came together with whitefish producers and processors recently to lobby ministers and officials to change their minds.

At a meeting with the Department of Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs - with Michael Gove then the Secretary of State making a brief appearance - officials were receptive.

But the real discussions now need to take place with the Department of Transport.

The prospect of hundreds of thousands of kilos of salmon sitting in queues of traffic, unable to get to the Channel while European consumers wait with empty plates on the continent, is a very real one.

It can be avoided.

The SSPO has been promised a meeting with senior transport officials in the near future. Time is running out but we believe there is still more than enough left before the October 31 deadline to get this sorted - if the will is there.

This article by the SSPO's Hamish Macdonell first appeared in the August 2019 edition of Fish Farmer magazine.