Welcome for new grants | Fishing News

New grants welcomed but more needed

No help for English over-24s and Scots whitefish fleet

There has been general industry welcome for new support packages announced for the English under-24m and Scottish over-12m fleets, reports Tim Oliver.

But some anomalies both within and between the packages announced by DEFRA and Marine Scotland have been pointed out, as well as the fact that the schemes offer limited help and exclude some vessels.

The English scheme does not offer any help to over-24m vessels, which hits the scallop fleet, while the new Scottish package for over-12s helps scallopers and other shellfish boats but excludes help for the whitefish fleet.

Scottish boats must also have earned at least £20,000 in 2019 to qualify for aid, whereas in the rest of the UK the eligibility requirement is only £10,000 (see below).

Industry groups in England and Scotland said they would continue to press the government for help for those vessels that had slipped between the gaps of the existing schemes.

Commenting on the new £10m English scheme, the NFFO said in a statement that the support was a further important step towards shielding crews and fleets economically, to ensure that they can remain intact and recover after the Covid-19 health emergency has passed.

But it said there were anomalies in the scheme, and ‘it could not be described as generous’.

“Along with the support for furloughed workers and self-employed share fishermen, this announcement is an important step towards closing gaps in the safety net put in place to protect the economy from the worst economic effects of the pandemic,” said the federation.

“The grants to fishing vessels will go a considerable way to covering some of the mounting fixed costs faced by fishing businesses, at a time when lockdown has removed or seriously diminished markets for fish and shellfish. It is a top-up/tie-up scheme which will allow those vessels that have been forced to tie up to resume fishing as soon as it is judged that there are markets to sustain a return to fishing activities, and to contribute to the nation’s food supply.

“The scheme also brings belated parity with terrestrial businesses (which can access small business grants of £10,000), and with fishing fleets under the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, which have already announced their own support measures.

“The announcement towards the end of last week came as a huge relief to many vessel operators who had begun to despair that the English fleets had been abandoned. In the end persistence paid off.

“The three-month scheme could not be described as generous. It has been capped at £10,000 per business. It has also been carefully calibrated to provide the minimum support necessary to keep fishing businesses of different sizes intact. As soon as markets recover, the scheme will end.

“As welcome as the announcement of this scheme has been, it is not without anomalies. Vessels over 24m have not been included, despite some also having been seriously impacted. This is particularly true of the scallop sector, one of the fleets most severely affected by the collapse of export markets.

“Parts of the whitefish fleet also remain exposed and without support. The NFFO will continue to talk to government about providing coverage for the whole fleet, and aspects of the scheme which, so far, lack clarity.”

Griffin Carpenter of the New Economics Foundation pointed out that while DEFRA said the grant will help ‘over 1,000 fishing and aquaculture businesses’, there are in fact 2,923 fishing vessels registered in England.

The condition that active vessels are defined as those earning more than £10,000 in the previous year means that many low-activity vessels are excluded from help, as well as the significant number of inactive vessels. Griffin Carpenter said that over the UK as a whole, Seafish figures for 2018 indicated that 35% of registered vessels were classified as low-activity boats, and will therefore be excluded.

‘Huge mental and financial stress’

Commenting on the English and Welsh grants schemes, NUTFA spokesman Jerry Percy said that the grants were welcome but might be ‘too little, too late’ for some operators.

“Delays announcing grant support, especially in England and Wales, have meant huge mental and financial stress for so many operators,” he told Fishing News.

“The grants ignore the loss of income in March suffered by many fishermen, and this comes on the back of an awful winter for weather for the under-10 sector that has resulted in many of these guys already carrying significant debt into the spring. Payments will be in April or May, and fishermen were losing money in March. Whether it will be too late for some, I don’t know.

“But on the plus side, I’ve had indications that the MMO has recognised the need to get money out quickly, and is turning the grants round as fast as possible.”

While the Scottish scheme had been up and running for some time, it wasn’t clear whether the Welsh scheme was operational yet, he said.

“One would not want to be churlish – the grants are a very welcome level of support, and we are thankful to minister Victoria Prentis and DEFRA officials for their efforts – but it is really the minimum support. If you consider some of the operating costs of vessels that have been tied up through loss of markets, it’s not really going to solve the problems of many operators.”

Shellfish vessels, in particular, had been tied up for some time due to lack of markets, and while there were some small signs of recovery in shellfish markets, they were ‘very, very tentative’.

Jerry Percy said: “In terms of finfish, the home delivery schemes have grown exponentially, and that gives some hope for the future, but at the same time, the markets remain very fragile.

“For example, last week at one south coast auction, size one blond ray made 84p a kilo, which is frankly obscene. I appreciate that the markets are very difficult – no one likes to point fingers at a time like this – but I’ve seen very few examples of a reduction in costs to consumers.”

He said that a big concern now is the Channel cuttlefish trap season, which has just started. “There are indications that there are some good catches to be made, but the French and Belgian markets are very, very fragile.

“France is talking about £1/kg, which is no good to man nor beast. Boulogne market opened up a week or 10 days ago, but the prices have been so poor, no one’s bothered.”

Jerry Percy said that the government had been very slow on testing for Covid-19. “Crews are supposed to keep 2m apart, which is impossible on a 10m boat. Testing for crews prior to fishing trips is of vital importance, but we haven’t had any information on the testing regime.

“There is still a big period of uncertainty. The government grants have certainly helped, but it’s as much as we can expect, I think, for the time being, so we have to make the best of it. The additional support offered by the Fishmongers’ Company and Seafarers UK will make all the difference for many fishermen [see page five], but many people will continue to struggle, and I reckon we’ll lose some of the businesses over time.”

£10m support package for English industry

Under the terms of the £10m funding package for England’s fishing and aquaculture sectors announced by DEFRA on 16 April, more than 1,000 fishing and aquaculture businesses in England will receive direct cash grants through a fisheries support scheme.

Grants totalling £9m will be available to eligible fishing and aquaculture businesses under the Fisheries Response Fund (see below), and a further £1m will support projects to assist fishermen to sell their catch in their local communities.

The support scheme, which will run for up to three months, aims to meet the immediate needs of the industry by helping with fixed costs such as insurance, equipment hire and port costs.

The scheme is a top-up rather than a tie-up scheme, and vessels will still be able to fish and sell their catches where this is a viable option.

“The measures will support the English industry, in particular smaller fishermen, during this challenging time, and follow an unprecedented package of financial support already announced for small businesses,” said DEFRA.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “This £10m scheme will provide a lifeline for more than 1,000 fishing businesses so they can continue to maintain and operate their boats during this challenging time, which has seen falling prices and lack of demand for fish from the restaurant industry.

“We are continuing to work closely with the fishing and aquaculture industry to ensure that they are supported, and can get back to their vital role of providing fish for the table while contributing to the economy of many of our coastal communities.”

Main features of the scheme

Funding will be available to under-24m vessel owners with fishing licences registered in England who recorded sales of £10,000 or more in 2019.

The grants are intended to help to cover fixed costs, calculated from the average business costs for the size of the vessel, as surveyed by the industry annually.

The MMO will pay fixed monthly amounts for three months to eligible owners, with initial payments from 20 April through to early May. There is no need to apply.

There is a maximum cap of £10,000 per vessel.

MMO launches Fisheries Response Fund

Guidance and FAQs on the government’s new £9m Fisheries Response Fund (FRF), including fund criteria and eligibility, are available on the MMO’s website at: bit.ly/2yuSoAx

The FRF will contribute towards the fixed business costs of over 1,000 businesses in the catching and aquaculture sectors that have been adversely impacted by the downturn of export and domestic markets for fish and shellfish.

The fund is up and running just days after its announcement by DEFRA and HM Treasury. The MMO’s grants team is now contacting owners of under-24m fishing vessels by email, in stages over 10 days. To support industry and customers, the MMO has temporarily extended its hours to 7pm on weekdays, and to include Saturdays.

The MMO worked with DEFRA and fishing industry representatives, using data collected on fishing activities, to identify where there has been most impact, and where to target the fund to areas of greatest need.

To qualify, under-24m vessel owners must be registered with the MCA, hold a fishing licence from the MMO, and have had sales of £10,000 or more, as recorded on sales notes supplied to Registered Buyers and Sellers, during the period 1 March, 2019 to 23 March, 2020.

Qualifying businesses may continue fishing. They may also apply for the existing support available for businesses, including the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme. Further details are available in the ‘one-stop shop’ guide available at: gov.uk/mmo

Tom McCormack, chief executive of the MMO, said: “We’ve continued to stay closely engaged with the fishing industry, and are very much aware of the difficulties many fishing businesses have been facing with the downturn in markets for fish and shellfish.

“We absolutely acknowledge the importance of our fishing industries, and share concerns about these current impacts – it is our problem too.

“The data we collect from the fishing industry has proved timely and incredibly valuable in helping to quickly evidence the current situation, and to target where financial support is most needed.

“We will be reviewing as we go, and will continue to engage with and listen to the industry, to ensure we’re supporting our fishing industry in the right ways.”

Further information for aquaculture businesses will be provided from this week.

The second fund announced by DEFRA has a value of £1m and will be a grant scheme to support the sale of fish locally. The MMO will administer applications for this grants scheme, and will provide further details from this week.

No help yet for ‘struggling’ Scots whitefish fleet

Scottish industry leaders welcomed the further round of grants for the shellfish sector of the over-12m Scottish fleet, but there was concern that there is no help as yet for the ‘struggling’ whitefish sector, reports Tim Oliver.

Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, said that it welcomed the over-12m grants, and accepted and understood the rationale behind the scheme, but were continuing to press for a scheme for the whitefish sector.

“The aim of the scheme is first and foremost to get money to the sectors such as prawns and scallops where the markets have been lost entirely, or almost entirely,” he told Fishing News.

“The next phase is the more complex area of the whitefish market, where vessels are struggling on – and that is the key word, struggling – through difficult times. We need to work out how to get funding to them, and we are in the process of trying to make a case for the whitefish sector.

“Although they are going to sea, operational costs remain the same, if not higher, because they’re trying to develop shorter trips and fresher produce. The prices of some species are collapsing, but they are intent on trying to get quality food to the consumers, when it’s almost an issue of food security.

“A case needs to be made for the wider recovery phase, because there are some markets, such as the Nephrops and perhaps the scallop market, that will take more time to recover, so we need to look at what funding will be required in the medium to long term.”

He said that while vessels were being encouraged to go to sea where there was a market for their fish, the markets, while open, were ‘fickle’, with limited demand that vessels were trying to meet. It was difficult trying to balance supply and demand.

The whitefish fleet was trying to meet the demands from the big processors supplying the retail markets with MSC-certified fish, and to ensure that contracts were maintained in the future.

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “We welcome this further tranche of financial support for the Scottish fishing fleet, much of which has been under severe pressure since the Covid-19 pandemic hit our markets, first abroad and then at home.

“Most of the Scottish shellfish fleet has been tied up for almost a month now, as restrictions and lockdowns mean restaurant, hospitality and foodservice markets around the world, that normally enjoy Scottish seafood, have essentially disappeared.

“Fishing businesses are floating businesses, so are not eligible for the Covid small business grants scheme based on rateable premises. We are grateful to Fergus Ewing and Marine Scotland for having regular dialogue with us, listening to industry, and acting quickly to provide support to the fishing industry and wider seafood sector, on which so many of our coastal communities depend.”

Elaine Whyte, a national co-ordinator for the Communities Inshore Fisheries Alliance, said: “Covid-19 has had a great impact on our fishing communities, closing markets completely and reducing much-relied-upon income for coastal families nationally. We’ve worried greatly about securing some type of emergency assistance for this section of society, which had lost the ability to earn a living at sea and provide for their families, and many of whom were not eligible for other forms of current support.

“We sincerely thank the Scottish government for addressing the needs of people who fish for a living, most of whom live in already fragile Scottish coastal communities. The support offered will hopefully help save vulnerable businesses which are the backbone of their villages and towns.”

£3.5m for over-12m Scottish shellfish vessels

Larger Scottish vessels over 12m are to get a £3.5m support package to help them weather the coronavirus crisis. Under-12m Scottish vessels got a £5m package a month ago.

The latest scheme will provide capped payments of up to £21,370 per vessel, to businesses with a vessel over 12m landing shellfish such as crab, lobster, scallop and langoustine, to help them meet fixed costs like insurance.

It will also provide up to £42,740 for businesses operating more than one vessel. Amounts will be graduated by fleet segment and length category.

The over-12m fleet support scheme is open to businesses operating active Scottish-registered and licensed vessels over 12m in overall length, where a vessel made a minimum of £20,000 landings in 2019.

Grants will be made on the basis of three months’ equivalent of recurring fixed costs, excluding elements such as mortgages, interest, depreciation, crew costs and fishing gear repairs or purchases. The fixed costs are based on data gathered by Seafish as part of its annual fleet economic surveys.

Fisheries secretary Fergus Ewing said he had listened to calls from businesses which had seen their livelihoods ‘disappear overnight, as their markets have shut down in response to vital public health advice’.

He said: “This latest funding benefits more than 220 Scottish vessels over 12m. Overall, more than 1,000 fishing and aquaculture businesses are now eligible for funding to help them, their crews and staff through this unprecedented period.

“We are using Scottish and UK government funds to support the unique needs and circumstances of Scotland’s economy, particularly to help safeguard livelihoods in coastal and island communities. This package represents the most comprehensive set of measures to support fishing and fish farming anywhere in the UK.

“Support being provided to businesses operating vessels over 12m finalises the relief we can offer to the sea fishing and aquaculture sectors to mitigate the economic and social impact of Covid-19, having exhausted current transitional funding streams.

“Discussions with industry will continue as to the impact on future sector spend. I would urge the public to play their part in supporting these key contributors to Scotland’s food success story by buying Scottish seafood and fish if they can.”

Over 350 payments totalling £3m have now been made under the £5m under-12m scheme. The £3.5m to help larger fishing vessels brings the total made available to the seafood industry by the Scottish government from new and existing funds to £22.5m.

While the four financial support schemes announced so far will in particular help businesses based in coastal and island communities, key employers around Scotland involved in fish processing and trout farming will also benefit.

£20,000 to qualify in Scotland v. £10,000 elsewhere

Some Scottish fishermen pointed out that while the support schemes for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man all pay out for vessels that earned a minimum of £10,000 in the previous year, under both the Scottish schemes, vessels must have earned twice as much – £20,000 – to qualify for support.

Responding to the criticism, a Scottish government spokesperson said: “Support to the seafood industry in Scotland now totals nearly £23m, and this package represents the most comprehensive set of measures to support the seafood supply chain, fishing, fish processing and fish farming anywhere in the UK, with more than 1,000 fishing and aquaculture businesses now eligible for funding.

“We are using Scottish and UK government funds to support the unique needs and circumstances of Scotland’s economy, particularly to help safeguard livelihoods in coastal and island communities.

“We considered carefully how best to design our support packages for fishing, and discussed proposals with a range of industry representatives. They agreed that it would be appropriate to focus our bespoke support packages on Scottish fishing businesses, those whose income is made exclusively or primarily from fishing, and use the same eligibility point of £20,000 that was used previously in 2014.

“We are aware that this excludes some businesses and individuals who have a part-time income from fishing. However, those who are self-employed are eligible for support from the UK government’s Covid-19 package, and the Scottish government has also dedicated around £220m of grants for businesses, including the recently self-employed, with a further £100m being made available to protect self-employed people and viable micro and SME businesses, to help them deal with the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

Open letter from fisheries minister Victoria Prentis

To all those who contribute to our fishing, seafood and aquaculture industries,

Thank you.

As a nation, we are all undoubtedly going through one of the greatest health challenges of a generation, and over the past few weeks, the government has taken some unprecedented steps, instructing people to stay at home, to protect our NHS and save lives.

I know these are challenging times for us all, and I would like to pay particular tribute to those of you who are, where possible, continuing to work and help feed our nation – your work is vital.

Coronavirus has affected every part of our economy, and this has been felt particularly severely by our fishing, seafood and aquaculture industries – where so much of our great produce is sold around the world.

Sectors right across the economy shoulder a similar burden, and the chancellor has been clear from the start that we will do whatever it takes to support people through such unprecedented times, announcing economy-wide support for business and the self-employed. I will continue to work with industry so share fishermen and fisheries businesses understand how to access this support.

On Thursday [16 April], we announced further measures to support the seafood sector, with a specific fund to secure the long-term future of the English fishing industry, by helping fishing and aquaculture businesses to meet the fixed costs they face, such as insurance, equipment hire and port costs.

The Marine Management Organisation will administer this £10m fund, contacting eligible registered owners and licence holders directly. A proportion of the fund will go to support initiatives to encourage the public to buy locally caught fish. Further guidance on the details of the scheme will be published in the coming days.

To the public, I urge you to support your local fishermen at this time. I am particularly pleased to see home delivery initiatives to connect consumers with local fishmongers, fishermen and merchants. The Marine Management Organisation is working closely with industry to help facilitate these arrangements.

I also want to mention the invaluable work carried out by specialist charities for fishing communities. Details of these organisations are available on the Marine Management Organisation’s website.

I am immensely grateful for all those in the fishing, seafood and aquaculture industries who continue to operate in these testing times, or who have reduced operations to limit the spread of the disease.

Victoria Prentis

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