French ferry ban spells 'monumental disaster' for Scottish seafood firm

Paul Knight's  lorries have been left stuck by the ferry banPaul Knight's  lorries have been left stuck by the ferry ban
Paul Knight's lorries have been left stuck by the ferry ban
Scottish seafood exporter tells of £100,000s worth of prime lobster, prawns and crab rotting away on English quayside.

For Paul Knight and the hundreds of fishermen up and down the west coast and islands of Scotland who rely on his lorries getting to the markets of Europe, 2020 was already a year to forget long before today.

Since March the market for prime-quality live Scottish shellfish, like many top-end food products, has been obliterated by restaurant closures, lockdowns, and global belt-tightening.

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But with families across Europe keen to banish the blues by having a proper Christmas seafood feast, complete with Scottish lobsters, crabs and prawns taking centre-stage, Oban-based exporter Mr Knight and his fleet of suppliers were hoping for a small ray of salvation in an otherwise grim winter by flooding the markets of Southern France and Northern Spain just at the right time.

Paul Knight of PDK ShellfishPaul Knight of PDK Shellfish
Paul Knight of PDK Shellfish

Instead, on what should have been the busiest day of his year, the French ferry ban imposed last night to halt the spread of a virulent strain of Covid has already put £200,000 worth of live creel-caught shellfish currently sitting in the back of two of Mr Knight’s lorries in Portsmouth harbour at risk of complete devastation.

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Mr Knight, managing director of PDK Shellfish, had planned to ship the load from Portsmouth to Caen and then drop off at key points to local wholesalers in South-west France and Northern Spain, where it was hoped the live seafood, arriving just days before Christmas, could command three times its usual value.

But with logistics allowing for only 36 hours from catch to plate, the carefully-timed exercise is in tatters.

£100,000s worth of Scottish seafood is at risk£100,000s worth of Scottish seafood is at risk
£100,000s worth of Scottish seafood is at risk

Mr Knight said: “I have something called the ‘money clock’ and it basically ticking from the moment you catch shellfish, and only has 36 hours before it runs out. Before Brexit, before Covid, we were under extreme pressure anyway; every minute is accounted for.

"Even though our lorries have tanks where the shellfish are kept alive in aerated, temperature-controlled water at 36 hours we are factoring in 5-10% in our mortality rates, but beyond 36 hours...forget it.

"It has been a hard year for everyone let’s face it, but we were the only firm still exporting live Scottish seafood in the way we do, and we carried on going because the Scottish Government asked us to. But this whole French ferry ban may just be the straw that finally breaks the Camel’s back.

"I simply don’t know where we can turn now. It is a monumental disaster, the damage is beyond repair. Yes I have insurance, but like most insurance it probably won’t be worth the paper it is written on and we won’t have the time or money to keep going while we argue over any payout.”

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Mr Knight estimates there are hundreds of Scottish and European families who rely on his lorries getting the goods to market. He was trying to find an alternative route to Spain via Santander but places on ferries are tight, the shellfish is already at risk, and he may have missed key market dates in cities like Bilbao.

He said: “These are just two loads, and it took 20-30 boats up and down the West Coast to catch them, and on each of those boats there are probably two or three fishermen. I had moree loads the day before, and I will have more loads today and tomorrow. That is a lot of people.

"I have 18 employees myself, but there are other wholesalers in the chain. If our product is ruined every one of them is also in trouble.

"I have been up all night trying to find a solution and I am hoping we can work with Brittany Ferries to get on a boat to Santander, they have been great and have put us to the front of the queue, but I honestly think the damage is beyond repair.

Donna Fordyce, Chief Executive of industry body Seafood Scotland, said: “The seafood sector is hanging by a thread, and this latest blow is beyond devastating. 21 and 22 December are the busiest days of every year, as Europe traditionally enjoys premium seafood as part of their Christmas Eve celebrations – this week was to be the shining light between an horrendous 2020 and a looming Brexit transition. Many companies have been working flat out for a week to fulfil massive orders from Europe.

“Much of the seafood to fulfil these huge orders has been caught or landed and is either on the road or was about to be. Seafood companies and processors have purchased millions of pounds worth of catch for orders that won’t now see the market and being highly perishable, it can’t be shelved, or stockpiled.

"The companies will take the hit of the spoiled goods, and some may not survive long enough to see whether insurance pays out.

“The sector needs urgent help. Firstly, they need the Border open safely, and high-value perishables prioritised so they can hit the last markets of the year. Companies need clarity from the insurance sector as to whether losses already sustained will be covered, and they will need help from Government in the short term.

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"And finally, the last 24 hours have really brought home the urgent need for more time to prepare for Brexit. A grace period for checks and new paperwork would be enormously welcomed. In 24 hours, everything has changed and if the industry doesn’t get help now, the wider consequences could be dire.”

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