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Potlights and politics

A huge thank you to Toby Coe of Fishtek for a fascinating visit recently. This is exactly the kind of company we need to encourage to locate and grow in South Devon, offering meaningful year-round employment at a range of levels including skilled labour up to highly qualified water engineers.

Totnes probably has the highest concentration of water engineers per head of population than anywhere else in the country!

I learnt how they design fish ladders and passages to help fish migrate back upstream to spawn, getting past the man-made barriers we have put in their way – there’s barely a river in the country that hasn’t been altered by humans.

Their designs have covered the UK and gone as far as Liberia, Laos and Nepal – a truly global business.

And now a sister company, Fishtek Marine, is developing products that hold untold potential for changing the way we catch shellfish – and could radically transform the sustainability of the industry.

A small LED light, placed inside a crabbing pot, has been shown to increase the catch by an incredible 77%. And it works with scallops too – no one really knows why they are attracted by the light, but the evidence is clear. Catching scallops with pots in this way does far less damage than scraping the seabed with bottom trawlers.

UK scallop dredges are considered to be one of the most damaging dredge designs, due to the penetrative nature of the dredge which can cause considerable physical disturbance to the seabed.

If you’re intrigued, watch the scallops jumping in a video on scallop behaviour here on their website.

It would be great to see government support for a wholescale change in the scallop fishing industry so that those who have invested millions in dredging equipment are not left high and dry, but can choose to make the change to sustainable methods of catching.

As a prospective Liberal Democrat MP I am intrigued to ask the question – has Brexit impacted your business? With no agenda, just an open-ended question, I didn’t know what I would hear – but I was shocked by the speed and clarity of Toby’s answer.

“It’s an absolute disaster. We have two businesses and for Fishtek Marine it has had a significant impact. It’s making it seriously difficult for us to export into the EU. The red tape is making it untenable for business and we may end up having to open a subsidiary in Ireland to manage it.”

On a wider level he talked of how funding is drying up for environmental work as EU funding streams end. “I’m starting to hear from colleagues at the Environment Agency and the West Country Rivers Trust that as the EU funding starts to dry up it’s getting harder to find other funding.” The promises of sustained funding for projects from the UK government have just not materialised.

“There’s also the mindset of why should we buy from the UK?” said Toby – with European partners becoming more reluctant to do business with a country that has deliberately made it so complicated. It’s a depressing, though not entirely surprising, thing to hear.

Finding quality engineers is also becoming more of a challenge, as the EU engineers have gone back home, and we’re not producing enough engineers here.

“There is a shortage of people in the environmental sector – there too much work, basically and not enough people to do it,” said Toby.

Being located in South Devon has been fine up until recently but is now becoming more of a challenge. A lot of Fishtek’s work is in northern England and Scotland and that is beginning to pose real challenges. “You just can’t move around the UK easily any more. Long distance public transport is dire, we never use the trains any more – because of the price and reliability. Our roads are a nightmare, everything takes far longer than it used to.”

So Fishtek are also planning to open a site in Scotland to reduce the need to travel across the UK – and because the Scots like to deal with companies who have a presence in Scotland.

It’s a success story based in Dartington – expanding across the UK and working internationally. But it’s clear that over the past decade we have put some enormous challenges in the way of business and the logistics of making a business work in the UK are challenging.


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