“Brexit might be the end of our business” say River Severn eel fishermen

Glass Eels

A business which has been catching and selling glass eels in the River Severn near Gloucester since the early 1970s may be forced to close if it fails to meet requirements introduced because of Brexit.

Thanks to Brexit, Glass Eel – which currently exports to countries like Germany, Sweden and Lithuania without the need for checks or restrictions, will now have to meet the requirements that exist for non-EU members and prove their practices are non-detrimental to endangered species.

Before this story unfolds, you might want to know (like we did the many times we’ve passed the business’s premises while driving down the A40 from Gloucester to the Forest of Dean), what a glass eel is: It’s an elver, or a young eel, and responsible fishermen have been catching elvers on the River Severn for thousands of years.

But it’s also an endangered species, with numbers in the UK having declined dramatically over the last few decades.

Glass Eel takes its responsibilities towards the local eel population seriously. It has been working with The Sustainable Eel Group since it’s concept in 2009, and also working with Severn and Wye Smokery with their ‘Eels in Schools Programme‘, introducing tanks of glass eels into classrooms.

Since 2011, the company has released hundreds of thousands of its carefully grown juvenile eels into Llangorse Lake in the Brecon Beacons.

But with Brexit, a major issue is that the company will no longer be able to fly the eels out of Gloucestershire Airport as it is not a registered Animal Border Inspection Post.

Victoria Hale, Office Manager for Glass Eels said: “This will mean flying them probably to Manchester and will cause major issues if we are able to export, as it will mean too much handling of the glass eels and the risk of them getting warm on runways, having delayed take off times and ultimately dying.

“Each delivery on the aircraft is worth £200,000-£300,000.  These are live fish, which are on the endangered species list, so if they die, we lose the shipment and the money.”

Matt Griffith, Director of Policy at Business West which offers support and advice to businesses in the West of England, is very concerned about the situation for the rising industry.

He said: “Companies are facing a huge amount of change due to new rules and regulations introduced because of Brexit as well as the added pressure of the pandemic affecting supply chains.

“We are doing everything we can to support companies like Glass Eels. While the issue of restricting eel fishing is not dependent on a deal or no deal Brexit, it’s important that attention is drawn to issues like this so businesses have a voice during the negotiations.”

A review is required to be undertaken by The Scientific Review Group, a constituent part of the European Commission who are responsible for evaluating and regulating trade, to assess whether their fishing practices are sustainable, but Glass Eels has concerns about the quality of the data that has been produced on which the research and review is based, which has driven it to undertake its own research to help protect the business.

Victoria said: “The Environment Agency used a lot of data which isn’t current, and which is based on a river in Canada where they catch 100 per cent of the fish in their river. The fisherman on the River Severn do not catch anywhere near this amount.

“We’ve had to produce our own paper which has been peer reviewed and published. Now we just have to wait for our fate to be decided as to whether we can export to the EU or not…Brexit might mean the end of our business.”

The company has already faced a financial blow as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has made the decision that fishing of Elver eels cannot continue in Welsh rivers as it could not be proven that enough elvers could escape the fishery to allow for a surplus to continue their population.

However, the company is appealing the decision in a letter citing the impact on livelihoods of fisherman working in the sector, including research that contradicts the decision.

Peter Wood, founder of the company writes in the letter:“There are some 40 Welsh glass eel fishermen who will lose part of their livelihood, that supply us the sector with glass eels.

“The sector needs a minimum critical mass to be viable, this mass has been gradually eroded over the last ten years, further loss of fishermen will still have a significant impact on the sector.” 

While the company is still facing a great deal of uncertainty, they are certain of one thing, and that is that if they are allowed to continue exporting to and importing from the EU they will be required to complete new documentation such as customs declarations.

Companies can register their interest for the ChamberCustoms service which will take the hassle away from importers and exporters and ensure that customs clearance is accurate, timely and avoids costs through delays or errors. 

Victoria at Glass Eels added: “I had no idea how to do any customs declarations and Business West have helped us enormously to understand what we’ve got to do to get our goods out of the country if we are permitted to.

“We’ve just got to wait until the middle of December to find out if we can still export to Europe.”