Scottish fishermen turn to food banks as Covid-19 devastates industry

Karen McVeigh
Photograph: Ian Rutherford/Alamy

Scottish fishermen are turning to food banks and welfare organisations, as the coronavirus crisis has led to plummeting demand for seafood, leaving many unable to work to feed their families.

Worst-hit are lobster and crab fishermen in Scotland’s south-east and west coasts, according to the Fishermen’s Mission, a Christian welfare charity. Staff at the charity have also identified “pockets of need” in Shetland and as far south as Newlyn in Cornwall. This comes just before the Easter holiday, traditionally a period of increased demand.

Claire McIntosh, the Mission’s area official for south-east Scotland, has been working 12-hour days fielding calls from crews whose skippers have had to tie up their boats.

“I’ve been liaising with food banks since January,” said McIntosh, whose patch covers the 80 miles of coastline from Seahouses in Northumberland to Port Seton in East Lothian. “This is on the back of poor weather and poor catches during winter. They are very self-sufficient folk, very resilient, resourceful and hard-working. Their last resort is to come to us. But I’ve handed out £17,500 in the last few weeks, compared to £12,000 for the whole of the last year.”

The UK fishing industry is worth £989m annually, with Scottish vessels responsible for more than half, at £574m in 2018. More than 70% of its catch is exported, mainly to Europe and Asia, but foreign and hospitality markets have collapsed in the crisis. While a much smaller retail market still exists for some fish, many supermarkets have shut their fish counters, reducing demand further. For high-value shellfish, the market is now virtually nonexistent.

“Langoustine, shrimp and prawn are almost impossible to get rid of and the demand for crab and lobster in China has just vaporised,” said David Dickens, the Mission’s chief executive. “When there’s a pandemic, people aren’t interested in high quality seafood.”

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The charity’s 71 staff across the UK are expecting things to get worse.

“All the indications are we’re at the beginning of a curve of need,” said Dickens. “This is the calm before the storm. From Kirkcudbright in the south up as far as Mallaig, there’s a lot of very worried people. We’re planning for the worst, but hoping for the best. Our focus is keeping the lights on and keeping food on the table.”

On 25 March, the Scottish government announced a £5m assistance package aimed at 650 seafood companies impacted by the collapse in the market for shellfish, and for owners of full-time registered vessels under 12 metres.

Dickens welcomes the scheme, which is underway, but said he and his staff are supporting crew or skippers who are ineligible, including those working part time.

A further £10m package for fish processing businesses was announced by the Scottish government on 3 April. A spokesperson said: “Work on the grant to processors is ongoing and we hope to open applications soon.”

They added that further support is being made available, including a £2.2bn grant to help Scottish businesses pay staff and treat them fairly.

Donna Fordyce, the interim head of trade marketing body Seafood Scotland, which is working on exploring other alternatives to get Scotland’s seafood to consumers, said: “It’s a pretty grim picture across the board. The seafood sector has been one of the hardest hit of all the sectors in Scotland, because of the level of exports. The market has more or less collapsed in Europe.”

It was already a bad year for fishermen, she said, with the “worst weather we’ve seen for 15 years for fleets”, before the Covid-19 crisis hit.

“The prawn and the scallop fleet are more or less all tied up,” said Fordyce. “The whitefish fleet, some are still going out.

“It is going to be a UK market for the next few months.”

Scotland has 2,089 registered vessels and 4,860 crew.

Among those waiting to find out if they are eligible for the £10m fund for processors is Jamie McMillan, the managing director of Loch Fyne Langoustines and Loch Fyne Seafarms. McMillan, who employs 22 staff directly and a further 48 on vessels, was forced to close temporarily three weeks ago because of the pandemic.

“We are waiting with bated breath,” said McMillan, who processes and exports scallops, lobsters and crabs. “If we can’t get that or we are not eligible, we’re finished.”

McMillan is currently paying his staff 80% of their salary, under the coronavirus retention scheme, which he can claim back from the government. But he lost 44% of sales to Hong Kong and China when Covid-19 first hit there, and has been losing money since January.

“We are having to pay staff weekly. It’s a huge strain on the business as we haven’t any cash.”

Based in Tarbert, Argyll and Bute, which has a population of 1,500, McMillan is one of the village’s largest employers.

“Twenty-two jobs is a lot of families,” McMillan said.

“The whole fishing industry is going to look different when we come out of this. Our customers in Hong Kong are saying 50% of their restaurants have not survived.”

Selling direct to the public, a tactic used by some shellfish fishermen in Devon and Cornwall, is more challenging in remote communities in Scotland, he said.

“Everyone is trying to sell to the general public but for us it’s very precarious. Businesses like ours depend on volume. I see people in Cornwall doing that. But when you live remotely as we do, there is just not the demand.”