By Donna Fordyce

IT’S been a year since the Brexit transition period ended but in many ways we’re still in the midst of a transition. This is particularly clear in the seafood sector, where Brexit has resulted in labour shortages, new export processes, and more. Almost every individual and organisation involved in Scottish seafood has been affected, and will continue to be for some time.

These changes are especially clear when looking at the individuals working in the industry: Pre-Brexit, Eastern Europeans represented 52 per cent of the overall Scottish seafood workforce. Rural communities with limited local populations relied heavily on imported labour, with up to 92% of the workforce coming from the EU.

Many of these EU citizens left Scotland because of Brexit. The UK Government’s strict immigration policy post-Brexit is preventing new people coming to replace those who leave. As a result, an average of 20-25% vacancies are left unfilled throughout the industry, particularly on fishing vessels and in processing facilities. Attempts to encourage British people to work in the seafood sector aren’t filling these jobs, as most applications have been for office-based roles.

We are working hard to have seafood processing added to the shortage occupation list this year. If we’re successful, it will have an enormous positive impact on our ability to bring people into Scotland.

While Brexit may have reduced our workforce, it has continued to add significant intricacies to the export process. As of last Saturday, for example, the majority of salmon products need to be signed off by a veterinarian before the consignment can be approved for export. However, there is a shortage of veterinarians, with recruitment unable fill this gap.

The new rules are sometimes interpreted differently at each border control point, which can lead to considerable delays – a real concern, given the relatively short shelf life of seafood.

Despite these challenges, it’s been inspiring to witness the many people and businesses coming together in support of our sector. From the Scottish Government immediately supporting our fishing fleet to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs working tirelessly to help make sense of a complex export system, it is encouraging to see so many people fight for our survival. The British public, too, has supported the smaller businesses who have had to refocus on the domestic market thanks to the numerous “buy local” campaigns.

There has been a sense of realism on the retail side in particular: one seafood supplier told us they’ve never seen retail customers so relieved to be only getting 70% of their orders in the lead-up to Christmas due to the lack of processing staff. In previous years that would have been unacceptable. This level of understanding will definitely go a long way in helping Scottish businesses survive.

Ultimately, we know the Scottish seafood sector will survive the challenges brought by Brexit. It is such a vital part of our economy, we simply can’t let it fail. With support from the public and private sectors, we must focus on accelerating new processes while maintaining the same high-quality seafood.

Donna Fordyce is Chief Executive, Seafood Scotland