New documentary on Scottish shellfish exports

The way the world is right now, you would be forgiven for forgetting about the existence of Brexit and how it continues to cause a shakeup with international relations and trade. But one industry that simply can't ignore the fact and is being forced to face these challenges head on is fishing - specifically shellfish.

A total of 80% of the shellfish caught in the UK is exported to the EU, with Scotland's Western Isles in particular being home to some of the most coveted shellfish in the world. The catches along the west coast are renowned for their taste, size, and texture. This is due in part to mineral rich, clean waters as a result of the Gulf Stream - resulting in a perfect environment to cultivate shellfish among the coasts rugged, rocky outcrops.

This festive period BBC ALBA's Maorach – Hebridean Shellfish will take viewers on a journey from the wild Hebridean seas off the west coast of Scotland to far-flung plates in mainland Europe. Filmed from December 2020 to September 2021, the documentary explores why so much shellfish is exported live to Spain, why there’s so little demand for it here, and the collective impact of Brexit and the pandemic.

“We wouldn’t describe [Brexit] as teething problems. These are fundamental changes, or increased barriers, to our supply chain.” So says Amber Knight, who along with Michael Iain MacNeil owns MacNeil Shellfish. Based at Larkhall, their business collects shellfish from all over the UK which they then export live to France, Spain and Portugal. The film journeys with one of their lorries to Spain to discover the obstacles they have to overcome.

Along the way, Michael is pensive as he reflects on the sustainability of business - in spite of all the odds stacked against them. “There will always be a future with Scottish shellfish, mainly due to the fishermen. It’s a very sustainable fishery, they all throw the ones that aren’t good back, throw all the ones with eggs back to the sea,” he explains.

A prime example of the sort of customer waiting at the other end is Joan Roca, a Spaniard who runs El Celler de Can Roca in Girona with his two brothers. Joan explains why shellfish is so important in Spanish culture, especially at Christmas when every family tries to eat shellfish: “Shellfish is a bond to celebration. In many cultures and many families all over Spain, the celebration consists of eating shellfish.”

With their successful restaurant twice being named the best in the world, the Roca brothers have good reason to be thankful for shellfish. But their appreciation for Scotland in particular is evident in their co-authored cookery book called Distilling Scotland, written after making a culinary tour of Scotland.

This symbiotic relationship between appreciation for produce and its surroundings is something that Gary MacLean thinks could help to increase local demand in shellfish, lessening the reliance on overseas exports. Gary is no stranger to Taste Magazine, with Scotland's National Chef a regular columnist to our publication.

He recently opened a new seafood outlet called Creel Caught in Edinburgh, which sells sustainably sourced seafood and teaches at City of Glasgow College. He's adamant in the belief that that inspiring and reigniting appreciation for local produce is key: “Food’s heart and soul, it’s not just a product. And I think if people understand, the environment, the location, the weather, you know, I think they then buy into it.”

Maorach – Hebridean Shellfish will air on BBC ALBA on Wednesday, December 29 at 9pm and repeats on Monday, January 3 at 10.30pm. It will also be available to watch on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days from 29 December and is available throughout the UK on Freeview.

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