Boris Johnson has blamed seafood exporters for a collapse in sales after Brexit, claiming they were “not filling in the right forms”.
Johnson also said the UK would control “all the fish” in its coastal waters in years to come.
And he linked the crisis – caused by a mountain of new red tape imposed by the hard Brexit trade agreement – to the Covid-19 pandemic shutting restaurants across the Channel.
“Unfortunately, the demand in restaurants on the Continent for UK fish has not been what it was before the pandemic,” Johnson said.
This comes after 14 people were issued with penalty notices after protesting against the government’s provisions for the fishing industry in its Brexit deal with the EU.
Blockages at Britain’s ports have become so bad that Scottish fishermen have taken to landing their catch in Demark.
Johnson dismissed the protests, saying that “insofar as there are problems at the moment”, they were “caused by teething problems, people not filling in the right forms, or misunderstandings”.
He said there would be compensation “when it’s not people’s fault”, and claimed: “Be in no doubt that there are great opportunities for fishermen across the whole of the UK.”
He added: “In just five years’ time, five and a half years’ time, we will have access to all the fish in all of our coastal waters.”
A spokesperson from Eyemouth-based DR Collin & Son, who were taking part in the protest, said: “The industry is being tied in knots with paperwork requirements which would be easy enough to navigate, given that companies have put in the time and training in order to have all the relevant procedures in place for 1st January 2021.
“However, all the training is going to waste as the technology is outdated and cannot cope with the demands being placed on it – which in turn is resulting in no produce being able to leave the UK.
“These are not ‘teething issues’ as reported by the government and the consequences of these problems will be catastrophic on the lives of fishermen, fishing towns and the shellfish industry as a whole.”
Alasdair Hughson, Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation chairman, said: “It is inevitable that the UK shellfish industry would want to make its voice heard loud and clear on this matter.
“After the year that all of these businesses have had, struggling to survive against the odds, now faced with this situation, to now find themselves being blamed for not completing forms correctly when they are all just trying to follow Government guidelines which are unclear and changing all of the time.
“If this debacle does not improve very soon we are looking at many established businesses coming to the end of the line.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of trying to blame fishing communities for the issues caused by Brexit.
Sir Keir said: “They are beyond frustrated, they are pretty angry about what’s gone on because the government has known there would be a problem with fishing and particularly the sale of fish into the EU for years.
“It didn’t prepare for it and now it is doing the classic thing of the government, which is trying to blame the fishing communities rather than accepting it’s their failure to prepare.”