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December 1st 2019

Talk to anyone who has ever been a fisheries minister and then watch them shudder when you mention quota negotiations.

These are the annual bouts of inter-EU brinkmanship which usually take place just before Christmas in an attempt to give the participants a meaningful deadline to work to.

Often, the winners are those who hold out longest while their competitors are either struggling to stay awake or frantically working out how they can still get home for the holidays.

Thankfully, this has never been an issue for salmon farmers. The quota discussions focus on wild stocks in the open sea, mostly in and around the North Sea and everybody in aquaculture has been delighted to stay out of them.

But that is likely to change. Soon, we may have to pay very close attention to quota discussions.

Indeed, we may well find that we can only sell the fish our farmers produce to the EU if the North Sea quota negotiators come to an amicable arrangement.

To go back a stage: before the last Brexit deadline - before it was postponed - the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation worked very closely with Scotland's white fish producers to try to get the best outcome.

We had common cause over a no-deal Brexit: we all wanted to get our produce to Europe as quickly and efficiently as possible.

We have every hope that this relationship will continue if, as expected, there is a deal and the UK leave the EU at the end of January.

After all, all seafood producers in the UK want to see tariff-free access to Europe, as little paperwork as possible and no delays at the border.

But we are also very aware that the context for seafood is going to change, and change dramatically if there is a deal: and this is where North Sea quotas come in.

That deal with have to cover everything from seafood to security, from financial services to car parts.

But, for the Europeans, one of the most important aspects will be access for European boats to at least some of the UK's territorial waters.

The threat is clear: the EU will only provide tariff-free access to European markets for UK seafood if European boats get at least some access to UK waters.

So the salmon sector, which has no skin in the game as far as the North Sea is concerned, may find itself facing a whole range of tariffs on exports to the EU if the EU and the UK cannot come to an arrangement over North Sea fishing.

The SSPO will be working hard on this issue, persuading the UK's negotiators of the importance of maintaining tariff-free access to European markets after Brexit.

We will be lobbying alongside our allies in the caught fish sector: they also want to see tariff-free access to the EU.

But we are also aware that we may have a different view when it comes to access to UK waters. For many in the white fish sector, controlling access to UK waters is the most important aspect of the whole Brexit debate and while they are prepared to concede some fishing rights to the Europeans, they want this to be kept to a minimum.

For us, everything is about ensuring there is continuing tariff-free access to the continent, regardless of any deals done on access to UK waters.

Up until now, we have been working together, concentrating on mitigating the worst effects of a 'no deal' Brexit. If we leave the EU at the end of January, our focus will shift on to ensuring we get is the best outcome for our sector.

That will mean ensuring the UK's negotiators know how important EU salmon sales are and how crucial it is that there are no tariffs put in their way.

There has undoubtedly been a mass switching off, as far as Brexit is concerned.

The postponement of Halloween deadline acted like a trigger, giving many people the licence to forget all about it.

But we are on the verge of the second act and although the setting may be different, the outcome is as uncertain as ever.

However, there is one more factor to put into the mix.

Nobody in a position of authority in the EU thinks the free trade deal can be done in the 11 months allocated by the UK government.

If that is indeed the case, then there will either have to be an extension to the extension (which is already an extension of an extension) or the UK will crash out without a deal at the end of 2020.

Boris Johnson has insisted that his end-of-2020 deadline is immoveable and no request for an extension will be made.

If that remains his position, then it won't just be the fisheries ministers who are staying up all night in Brussels as the clock counts down towards the deadline.

Ministers from every department and officials covering every sector will be forced into the most frantic and complex set of negotiations anybody in the EU has ever seen and the future of our salmon sales to the continent will be very much part of the mix.

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