Published: 06:00, 17 April 2021
For centuries oysters have been transported across Kent, destined for foreign lands.
But a controversial export ban sparked by Britain's exit from the EU is threatening to rip the heart out of an industry supporting hundreds of jobs in the county...
What has changed?
Shellfish such as oysters, mussels, clams and cockles are usually exported live as they stay fresher for longer.
Until this year, they did not have to be purified - a process removing contaminants in clean seawater tanks - until after they had reached their destination.
But on January 1 the EU enforced a ban on all unpurified molluscs being sent to its member states, unless they had been caught in the very cleanest waters.
But the UK industry says it does not have enough purification tanks ready and the process can slow exports, making them less viable.
"The issue with shellfish is that they are highly perishable, so there are many risks associated with delays," said Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.
Shellfish caught in class A waters - considered to be the cleanest - can be transported without being purified beforehand.
But most of the UK's waters do not fall within this category, with places like Whitstable in class B.
Our Political Editor Paul Francis went to Broadstairs to talk to fishermen who fear their fleet could become extinct because of Brexit
Did we know it was coming?
The new rules were enforced following Britain's departure from the customs union and single market at the start of the year.
The UK government claims the European Commission said the export of live, unpurified molluscs from class B waters could continue after the transition period, but its position suddenly changed.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesman said: "The Commission have now amended their import rules, without scientific or technical justification.
"Effectively they have changed the law to justify their position in blocking the trade, causing impacts for businesses on both sides."
It was hoped the ban would end on April 21, but the EU has confirmed it will remain in place indefinitely.
This has increased fears for the future of businesses and staff, amid concerns that purified shellfish go off quicker than unpurified ones, making them harder to transport.
Has Kent been affected?
Worst-hit by the ongoing saga is Whitstable, which is known for its world-famous oysters
Skipper Richard Foad, who catches shellfish such as cockles, was left without work for two months following the ban.
"Our buyers were an Irish firm but once the live shellfish ban came into place, they stopped buying from us without any explanation," the 28-year-old said.
"Luckily, there was a English firm in Kings Lynn who now take our whelks. If it wasn’t for them, we would still be out of a job."
Mr Foad says the ban has been "heartbreaking" and "the biggest worry" of his fishing career.
Head of the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company James Green says the ban prevents his firm selling market-sized oysters into Europe in bulk.
It has between 120 and 150 tons of the town's famous delicacy which were destined for the French market, but can no longer be sent there.
"This means we are looking at expanding other markets abroad and at home, and expanding our purification capabilities with the help of Defra," he said.
"The domestic market is starting to open up again and we have started to send oysters up to London for the first time in nearly six months.
"We have also started to send oysters to Hong Kong - the third shipment will leave this week.
"Nine full-time jobs depend directly upon the farm - and many more indirectly - and it is the world-famous oysters that the town is known for.
"The oyster business is a crucial part of the Whitstable economy."
Is it just Whitstable affected in the county?
The ban primarily affects Whitstable.
Further along the coast - heading around Thanet, Dover and Folkestone - EU exports are focused more on finned fish.
"Our local fishermen at Ramsgate are basically for finned-fish and whelks," said John Nichols, chairman of Thanet Fishermen's Association.
"Whelks are processed over here in the UK before they go abroad, so there's not a problem there.
"For Kent, it really is mainly Whitstable where they're impacted.
"You get down to Rye in East Sussex and they would have had a live export market for scallops."
Who is helping fight their corner?
Whitstable MP Rosie Duffield is part of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, which has launched an urgent inquiry into how the government can support meat and fish exporters.
She has also taken on the role as vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Fisheries Group which she hopes will give her "greater involvement as an advocate for the fishing industry in the constituency".
"For now, fishermen are losing contracts overseas and are not able to export their produce," she said.
"The industry is facing financial hardships that our generation has never seen before.
"It is imperative that the government intervenes and supports these businesses by providing adequate financial assistance.
"The alternative is that we see a globally well-known industry collapse, which will devastate many in the local area."
She told how the impact of Brexit has been "particularly harsh on fishermen" in her constituency, claiming they are facing ruin because of the "mismanagement of post-Brexit export policies and poor communication of the new administrative tasks when exporting to Europe".