For four tempestuous days and nights the trawler Sam of Ladram had been scooping up cuttlefish, 20 miles off our South-West coast.
By Thursday morning the storm had abated, and I watched its five crew offload the inky catch — known as ‘black gold’ in these parts — in their home port of Brixham, Devon.
With me was Ian Perkes, the town’s only fish exporter.
Ordinarily, he would have been eyeing the six-tonne haul with a view to buying a sizeable chunk, for £2 a kilo, at yesterday’s harbour-side auction, then selling it — with a 10 per cent mark-up — to wholesalers across Europe, where cuttlefish is a delicacy.
Since January 1, however, when cynical French customs officials began using every rule in the Brussels bureaucratic book to delay British fish entering the EU, he hasn’t bought a single box.
Ordinarily, Devon fish exporter Ian Perkes would ordinarily be keen on selling cuttlefish to sell in the EU. But since French customs officials began using every rule in the Brussels bureaucratic book to delay British fish entering the EU, he hasn’t bought a single box
As Mr Perkes told me, his business depends on his ability to put Devon fish on the dining tables of Rome, Paris or Madrid the day after landing.
He daren’t risk outlaying thousands of pounds when there is every chance the catch will be delivered so late that the quality is impaired and customers will reject it.
The pernickety attitude of Gallic jobsworths means some batches are not getting any further than Boulogne, which serves as a vast clearing house for Europe’s suppliers.
And worse, the fall in demand — made worse by lockdowns across Europe — has seen the price of British fish plunge by about 20 per cent across the board.
The trawler’s skipper, who has fished from Brixham for 40 of his 55 years, nodded in agreement as Mr Perkes described this disgraceful act of sabotage.
‘That’s the French for you, ain’t it?’ he mused, in his throaty West Country burr. ‘They’ll do anything to get at us.
‘People aren’t going to pay top dollar for fish that takes three or four days to reach its destination, are they?’
The pernickety attitude of Gallic jobsworths means some batches are not getting any further than Boulogne, which serves as a vast clearing house for Europe’s suppliers. Pictured: Fishermen empty their catch aboard fishing boat ‘About Time’ while trawling in the English Channel
Indeed not. Which is surely why France’s customs and border officials — doubtless encouraged by Brussels bigwigs intent on punishing Britain for leaving the EU — are applying the importation rules with vindictive rigour.
This is not merely a ‘teething problem’, as the Prime Minister blithely insisted this week. Nor are these fishermen merely whingeing in difficult times for us all.
They are tough, resilient folk who have endured many crises. But nothing quite like this.
This week, industry insiders gave me examples of the disgraceful delaying tactics.
Lorry-loads of our fish are being confined for many hours simply because a full stop has been misplaced when filling in the morass of newly essential importation documents — which can number up to 40 A4 pages per delivery.
Or because there is a discrepancy of a kilo or two in the declared weight of a box of fish.
One particularly petty French official objected to 32 pallets carrying 2,000 boxes of Scottish fish being labelled with UK stickers, I am told.
These islands were now officially known as GB, he sniffed, forcing the hapless driver to go away to have the ‘correct’ labels printed and attached, causing a 12-hour delay.
Lorry-loads of our fish are being confined for many hours simply because a full stop has been misplaced when filling in the morass of newly essential importation documents
In another ludicrous case, a West Country lorry driver was forbidden from transferring his load onto trucks taking orders from Boulogne to other parts of Europe because, on checking his tachograph (which records the speed and distance a vehicle has travelled), officials decided he had driven for his maximum allotted hours and had to take a break.
His protest — that he had only been at the wheel for so long because he was kept waiting for hours at the border and that, in any case, unloading boxes didn’t constitute a danger — was met with sneers.
Another driver was humiliatingly forced to unpack his load because a solitary fish-tail protruded from a box.
The officials apparently find all this highly amusing. ‘Don’t blame us, Monsieur, it was you who chose to leave,’ they will invariably say with a dismissive Gallic shrug.
However, to the many port towns which depend on Britain’s £987million fishing sector, and the 12,000 people it employs, there is nothing funny about this blatant bullying.
Paperwork can number up to 40 A4 pages per delivery. Drivers have also been stopped because there is a discrepancy of a kilo or two in the declared weight of a box of fish
For an industry which exports 75 per cent of its produce, this heavy-handed officiousness is threatening to put many merchants out of business.
And we haven’t yet mentioned the huge extra costs British fish exporters are incurring as they struggle to escape this strangling ‘cordon rouge’.
For instance, there are the costs for employing French-speaking accountants to handle the newly applicable 5.5 VAT rate on fish exports; and the price of paying French customs handling agents who, the jobsworth officials dictate for no obvious reason, must be based in, or very near, the fish trucks’ port of entry.
Then there are the fees — from £30 to £300 — for the services of British environmental health officers, or vets, who are now obliged to inspect every consignment of fish, sign it off as ‘fresh’, and forward the certification to Boulogne, no more than 24 hours before a lorry leaves the packing depot.
All this is causing such despair that, last Monday, merchants based in Devon, North Yorkshire and Scotland sent a convoy of trucks into the heart of London to highlight their plight.
Bearing slogans such as ‘Incompetent Government Destroying Shellfish Industry’ they parked as close as possible to Downing Street, and there were fears they would dump a mound of rotting fish outside No 10.
Police issued the drivers and their mates with £200 fixed penalty notices for making ‘unnecessary journeys’ in contravention of lockdown laws.
But Gary Hodgson, an owner of Bridlington-based crab, whelk and lobster wholesaler Venture Seafoods, told me he would gladly pay the fines for the three drivers he sent south.
‘To me it was absolutely essential to the entire seafood industry to highlight this issue,’ he said.
‘It’s easier to export fish to Asia now than to Europe. It’s ridiculous. But this isn’t just happening to us — in the next two or three weeks we will see the effect [of over-zealous EU border checks] on the entire haulage industry.’
A newspaper report this week suggests he may be right. It quoted a senior Brussels diplomat as saying that the EU was deliberately making it difficult for British goods to enter the Eurozone.
Why? To persuade us not to turn London into Singapore-on-Thames by introducing sweeping deregulatory work and business reforms that go against EU ideology.
Given that the UK has agreed to give EU countries a six-month grace period before enforcing our customs regulations stringently, this ploy is all the more outrageous.
In the Commons, however, the PM brushed aside the fishermen’s anger.
For an industry which exports 75 per cent of its produce, this heavy-handed officiousness is threatening to put many merchants out of business
Promising £100million to improve trawlers and fish processing plants, and a £23million package to tide over export firms hit by the hold-ups, he pledged that the fishing industry would soon reach its El Dorado (a remark which prompted critics to remind him that the Spanish Conquistadors never did find this mythical City of Gold).
This prediction echoed his remarks on sealing the Brexit deal, when, sporting a symbolic fish-patterned tie, he promised that Britain would soon ‘catch and eat prodigious quantities of extra fish’.
Among those who listened to those words with anticipation was our Brixham merchant Mr Perkes who, like many in the fishing industry, supported Brexit, believing we could only prosper by being freed from catch quotas and regaining sovereignty over our waters.
When Mr Johnson visited Brixham in the summer of 2019 Mr Perkes, 64, felt honoured to shake his hand on the harbourside.
While this blunt-talking businessman reserves his most stinging words for the French (‘they have never liked us, it’s history,’ he says) were he to meet the Prime Minister again his greeting would be less enthusiastic.
His ‘sense of disillusion’ becomes understandable as he describes the logistical nightmare that has beset his company — which he founded in 1976 and now turns over £4million a year, exporting fish such as Dover Sole, monkfish, scallops, bass and ray wings into Europe.
‘In week one of January, 2020, our sales were £85,000,’ he tells me, sitting in his office overlooking the strangely inert harbour.
‘In week one of this year, do you know how much they were? Zero. We didn’t export any fish at all until January 15. That’s how bad things are now.’
He explains his operation to help me understand this cliff-edge fall in trade. The day begins at dawn, when he buys fish straight off the boats.
Not long ago this was done in a chaotic auction room. Now it is done online from his office overlooking the harbour.
The fish is packed in his dockside warehouse, from where the freight carriers DFDS collect it and transfer it to their hub at the port of Avonmouth, near Bristol.
There it is loaded on a huge refrigerated lorry, along with fish from many other ports — a process known as ‘groupage’ — and travels via the Channel Tunnel to Calais.
From Calais, the fish is moved to Boulogne, to be collected by drivers who relay it to the continental wholesalers Mr Perkes supplies.
Before we left the EU this journey could be completed comfortably inside a day.
The only paperwork was a single sheet listing the customer’s name, the number of boxes shipped, the species of fish they contained, and their weight.
To the many port towns which depend on Britain’s £987million fishing sector, and the 12,000 people it employs, there is nothing funny about this blatant bullying
But even this form was superfluous. No one bothered to check it, much less look inside the lorries; they were simply waved into France.
The changes that occurred when midnight struck on December 31 are enough to make the head spin.
To illustrate it, Mr Perkes asks his office manager, Nicola Williams, to fetch the documents she had to complete on Wednesday when — after two aborted attempts — the company finally exported its first post-Brexit shipment.
She took out a sheaf of 39 pages and spread them out, covering his desk.
There were appendices, sub-sections, codes, charts, official stamps, translations from French to English… all for just three pallets of sole, scallops and skate with a sale value of £12,000. ‘So this is why we are all shouting,’ says Mr Perkes.
‘It’s madness isn’t it?’
So what is the purpose of this paper tsunami? How much time must it take to go through it all?
Suffice to say it covers four areas of inspection: customs declarations, catch certificates, export health certificates and cross-Europe journey-tracing plans.
But some consignments require as many as seven types of form, including endangered species permits.
They must be located on four different computer databases, and completing them is so fiendishly difficult that the Government’s Marine Management Organisation issued a 33-point flow-chart to explain the system.
The databases also have a nasty habit of seizing or serving up incorrect information.
When Ms Williams entered the ‘commodity codes’ for the company’s first planned consignment the one she was given for ray wings wasn’t recognised.
This glitch was detected by the time the lorry reached Exeter, just 30 miles away.
Fearing the French might deny entry to the entire lorry load for the sake of this one, minor error the driver turned back and offloaded the pallets.
Some of the fish was salvaged and frozen but thousands of pounds worth had to be destroyed.
Mr Perkes’ second attempted European foray, last Monday, was marginally more successful.
This time his fish reached Calais, but officials refused to allow it to be taken to Boulogne, just 20 miles along the coast, because the tracking system crashed.
The 24-hour delay meant it only arrived in Italy on Thursday. As for the latest despatch, it was still awaiting clearance during our interview.
Mr Perkes anxiously monitored its progress while fielding calls from customers across Europe ‘champing at the bit’ for their promised deliveries.
Worrying as such daily dramas are, though, what most concerns him and many other exporters is the price of implementing this raft of new regulations.
With environmental health officers, French agents and accountants to pay, and staff to handle the mountain of extra admin required, his costs will soar by about £300 a day, or £75,000 a year — and in a company with a high turnover but small margins, he says, that will wipe out its entire annual profit.
‘If this goes on for very long, we won’t be here any more,’ he says starkly. ‘Boris has promised £23million, and that will help in the short term.
‘But in the long run that’s nothing, is it?’
Before I leave, he shows me into the depot, where vats full of succulent scallops are being prepared for the Italians, who devour great quantities of them — if, that is, they arrive fresh from the sea.
Then we stroll past the Sam of Ladram, where the sight of ‘black gold’ being offloaded prompts Mr Perkes to reflect on the PM’s optimistic projection that, should our fishermen be prevented from selling freely and profitably into Europe, a whole new clientele of British ‘fish fanatics’ will be hungry for their catch.
A newspaper report this week quoted a senior Brussels diplomat as saying that the EU was deliberately making it difficult for British goods to enter the Eurozone
It makes him wonder whether the Prime Minister has the first clue about the industry he purports to champion.
Mr Perkes says: ‘We regularly get 100 tonnes of cuttlefish a week and 99.5 tonnes are exported. To the Europeans cuttlefish is a delicacy.
‘They have so many more dishes than us, and they’ll bake it, grill it, fry it.
‘But your average British person wouldn’t touch the stuff.’ He laughs: ‘We just use the backbone for pet budgies to nibble on.
‘It’s the same with lots of other species, such as Dover Sole. There are ten different grades, but only three will sell in the UK.
‘The rest have to go to Europe, so how can the Government say we don’t need to sell them our fish?’
He leaves this rhetorical question hanging and returns to his office to hear — mercy of mercies! — that permission has been given for his latest despatch to leave Boulogne. Only six hours late, but at last a modest victory.
Unless the French can be made to end this spiteful war, however, you fear that he — and thousands more in Britain’s age-old fishing industry — might soon sink without trace.