Blog: First oyster exports since Brexit save historic Fal Fishery from doom – Cornwall Live

A small Cornish company, which processes and transports Fal oysters to the EU, has become the first in the Duchy – and possibly the whole of the UK – to export bivalve shellfish since Brexit.

There were fears the historic Fal Fishery oyster trade would face ruin when it became apparent that, following Brexit, oyster fishermen would no longer be able to export bivalve species (oysters, scallops, mussels, cockles and clams) from Class B waters to the EU without being depurated – cleansed of impurities – or processed to a finished ready-to-eat product.

Fishermen have been collecting the oysters from the Fal Estuary using their traditional red-sailed wooden boats for hundreds of years.

Some go to local markets in Cornwall or are sold further afield in the UK – although the Covid lockdown, which has forced the closure of restaurants, has hit UK sales hard. The vast majority are exported to restaurants in France but a virtual ban on exporting to the EU was thought to be the final nail in the coffin for some producers.

Many of the Fal’s oyster fishermen hadn’t worked since before Christmas.

A company in Falmouth was not taking the changes sitting down and has made Brexit history by being the first Cornish firm to export oysters and queen scallops earlier this month, ensuring the livelihoods of Fal Estuary fishermen were saved.

Thomas Duane, of wholesale fish and shellfish business Falcatch, said: “Like most people in the UK, it was very hard to gauge if there was going to be a deal, no deal, extension or special deal on Brexit so it made it very hard to plan on what preparations to make as we could invest a lot of money in something we wouldn’t need or do nothing and get left behind if the deal that did happen happened.”

He said the business followed government guidance and prepared for a worst case scenario and “thankfully it paid off”.

Mr Duane said Falcatch had to figure its way around export health certificates, catch certificates, getting a UK export agent plus a French import agent, customs rep and fiscal rep.

“The biggest issue once we figured our way around all that was that we, like most exporters, didn’t know about and had no government guidance on the need for a French VAT number to trade directly with our French customers which would take six to eight weeks to receive,” he added.

Fal native oysters have been at the centre of post-Brexit controversy

With the help of Cornwall Council and Falmouth Port Health Authority, Falcatch had its depuration tanks approved for cleaning scallops and oysters. As a result, it made its first export on February 10, followed by another on February 12 and a substantial export similar to pre-Brexit levels on Thursday, February 18.

Mr Duane thinks his company may have been the first in Britain to export oysters to the EU.

He added: “We are a small company who process and transport our own product directly into the EU. We have a large number of suppliers and fishermen who depend on us to support them and find markets for their hard-got fish and we felt it was our duty to look after them as part of our close relationship. We have also had great support from our EU customers who desperately want our high quality product.”

He added that there were “a lot of happy fishermen” after the first exports were made.

“We have capacity to process 21 tonnes of shellfish per week,” said Mr Duane. “We are always looking for more supplies and happy to talk to any shellfish fishermen or small companies looking for a route to market in the EU. We run our own vehicles delivering directly to our customer twice a week.

“Brexit has made exporting a lot more complicated and expensive but not impossible if you have a backbone and determination.”

Chris Ranger, founding director of Fal Oyster, who has worked alongside Falcatch, placed some of the blame with export concerns on fellow fishermen.

A traditional oyster fishing boat on the Fal

He said: “The problem with most fishermen and merchants – they’ve been used to doing so much through the backdoor but they can’t do it through the backdoor anymore and now think they might as well wait for compensation and then give up and blame Brexit. It’s bullshit.

“This is proving that legitimate businesses are happy to do the work and the paper trail, and it works.”

Chris has approached Cornwall Council asking for funding to ensure the future survival of the Fal Fishery for generations to come on a council-affiliated aquaculture site on the Fal Estuary.

Stocks are so low that while 100 years ago 800 tonnes of oysters would be landed, last year it was a mere 17 tonnes. He believes leaving oysters to mature longer will improve trade and help an almost-endangered species.

Mr Ranger, who runs Fal Fishery Cooperative CIC, said: “Leaving oysters for longer not only improves their value but also allows more time for them to reproduce naturally, thus improving future stocks.

“There is more money to be made in selling premium quality oysters and other shellfish to top-end London restaurants if we take the time to wait for them to grow to maturity rather than overfish juveniles which will then be sold on to other growers in the UK or in Europe who will fatten the animals up and sell them as their own.”

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Mr Ranger’s oysters are on average 25% or 50% bigger than the juveniles destined for export, something he said leading restaurants in London are happy to pay top money for, making the industry viable and environmentally sustainable too as, for each oyster harvested after five years, five more will have been produced through natural reproduction.

He added: “We want Cornwall Council to help us look ahead rather than compensating us.”

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