Brexit ‘catastrophically wiped out’ decades of family oyster business with Europe

Tom is the 8th generation of the Haward Family – going back to the 1700s – to cultivate oysters in Mersea. The expansion of the oyster business into Europe abruptly ended on December 31st 2020 thanks to Brexit red tape.

Tom Hayward Mersea oysterman
Tom Hayward 8th generation Mersea oysterman

My family have enjoyed a healthy business relationship with Europe for decades.  Oysters from Mersea Island in Essex are famous throughout the world, and Europeans, especially, have always sought them out.  Before Brexit our small business regularly exported oysters to Belgium, Spain and Germany. We were also searching for customers in other European countries, such as Italy. 

When the referendum results were announced we decided, as a business, to start scaling back our sales into Europe as we could not see how the healthy customer base we had could be sustained. The UK severing its ties with the EU would only create massive (and expensive) trade barriers not suitable for exporting food products. 

Expanding the oyster business into Europe

Before Brexit we were trying to build our export market into Europe to account for 50 percent of our turnover. By 2019 though we had reduced it to eight percent of our turnover. The uncertainty of getting our oysters to customers on time, and the huge added costs of paperwork and border inspections, meant our margins would be decimated. It would not be sustainable to carry on selling to our European market. 

We were not even slightly optimistic a small amount of trade could be maintained, and we were unfortunately right. In 2019 we had sales worth £150,000 per annum with Europe.  Even though we had considerably reduced our efforts with selling oysters abroad, that was still a healthy addition to our business each year.  In 2021 our sales to the EU, so far, have amounted to £0. 

Brexit killed European exports

Brexit has not made selling oysters to the EU a little bit trickier. It has catastrophically wiped out trade. 

It is also worth noting that the full impact of Brexit and the complications businesses will face at customs has not been fully implemented. For small businesses, like ours, trying to create an expansive market, all Brexit has done is reduce our market. 

Government suggestions to switch trade is hopeless

Recently I was contacted by the Department of International Trade. They offered their help in exploring potential new markets outside of Europe, but the same barriers face our business still.  It’s not simply about finding countries outside of the EU to sell oysters to; it’s also about whether those countries want oysters or, if they do, what tariffs will be placed on them.

New Zealand is a good example as it appears the UK will secure a trade deal soon.  New Zealand has its own thriving oyster industry. The Bluff oyster is considered to be one of the best in the world. I worked in New Zealand and Kiwis eat a lot of oysters. They love their own oysters though. They see no reason to import British oysters when they have such a wonderful product on their doorstep.

Transporting live animals huge distances isn’t viable

The logistics of sending our oysters to New Zealand, if we found a customer, would be costly and impractical. Oysters are live animals and transporting them to the other side of the world would greatly reduce their shelf life. 

The wonderful thing about our former relationship with Europe was that we could pack our oysters into a box and by the next day they were at our Belgian customer’s address. 

Oysters need to be alive when sold, so the more days they are in transit, the greater chance they will not be alive when they reach their destination. We pride ourselves on the quality and freshness of our product. So we aim to get our oysters from sea to plate as quickly as humanly possible. Sending oysters to far-flung countries is too big a risk. There’s too much potential for something to go wrong and for us to lose a lot of money in the process.

Focusing the oyster business closer to home

It’s not all doom and gloom as we have spent a lot of time building our domestic market in preparation for Brexit.  As I write this we are as busy as we have ever been and selling approximately 30,000 oysters every week. All our work and effort to improve our domestic market has paid off for now and we are extremely grateful for that.

There is a ‘but’ associated with that. We live in unusual times in regards to buying habits in the UK, because of the pandemic, and therefore it’s difficult to know how much is long term trade and how much is the bounce of people being able to eat out again and go on holiday. 

The previous eighteen months have proven business is fragile and a major event can take everything away, as it nearly did with us.  If something significant happens in the UK again our business, along with many others, no longer has a captive European market to help us, and that is the damning reality of Brexit. 

Byline TV caught up with Tom earlier this year.

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