The impact of COVID 19 on fishing industries in ICES countries

ICES WGSOCIAL is addressing the likely impact of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic on fishing industries in ICES member countries – it appears impacts differ in each country due to different measures and diversity of fleets.
Published: 7 April 2020

​​​​With the COVID19 pandemic unfolding, ICES Working Group on SOCIAL indicators (WGSOCIAL) held an online meeting in the first week of April 2020 to share preliminary observations on how the current situation is affecting the fishing industries in ICES member countries. Twenty-five social scientists from twelve countries discussed the social impacts of the COVID19 pandemic on the fishing industry, sharing their personal observations from monitoring news and talking to fishers and others working in the fishing industry. The perceptions shared by WGSOCIAL members highlight how COVID19 is already impacting fisheries. Co-chairs Marloes Kraan (Wageningen Marine Research), Amber Himes-Cornell (FAO), and Lisa Colburn (NOAA) share here the group's preliminary impressions of the situation.

Throughout the ICES region, the current experiences of fishing industries appear to be linked with the severity of the COVID19 pandemic locally. Italy and Spain seem to be more acutely hit at this stage, with other European countries, the USA, and Canada either beginning to experience impacts or expecting this soon. Italian and Spanish fleets for the large part lie still due to the severity of the pandemic and lockdown measures imposed. In other countries, fishers can still fish, yet it is often difficult to do so. The fishing industry, in many countries, is considered critical for food production and supply, but there are two main problems in allowing them to continue.

Disrupted supply chains

The first problem concerns the global nature of supply chains. With transportation routes severely affected by the measures taken by many countries worldwide (e.g. closed borders, cancelled flights), these routes are not functioning well, and in some cases not at all. An interesting example is that of the North Sea brown shrimp fishery. The shrimp are normally peeled in Morocco before being sold on the European market. As Morocco is on lockdown, this fishery has been temporarily stopped.

Declining markets

Second, a large section of the market for fresh fish and shellfish – restaurants, hotels, and canteens – has also been severely affected, triggering a decline in fish prices and fears for a glut of fresh product in the markets. From discussions at the WGSOCIAL meeting, it seems that small-scale fishers are also affected by this. Larger fisheries with access to freezing and cooling facilities can often still continue, but are in turn affected by limitations at auctions, harbours, and processing companies that operate with less spatial, human and/or storage capacity. However, the turnover for canned or frozen fish products has increased considerably in some countries, such as in Germany, where people have begun to stockpile due to the crisis.

Producer organizations in different countries are taking measures to counter this problem. Recommendations have included to stop fishing in some cases (e.g. brown shrimp) to avoid too much product flooding the market, to collectively decrease landings (e.g. sole fisheries), to have shorter trips or to have longer trips, and to advance or prolong seasonal closures. Fishers who can be flexible have shifted areas and/or target species (i.e. fleets in the Netherlands and Denmark have switched to plaice).

National circumstances

It has also become clear that there are certain culturally specific circumstances affecting fleets in a special way. The Spanish fishing industry normally follows a federal-like approach with coastal waters under the exclusive management of the coastal autonomous region and other national and international waters managed by the central government. However, due to the state of emergency, there has been some confusion in key decisions affecting the fishing sector that are now decided by the central government. In addition, the government has asked the European Union for economic aid to close the fisheries. 

In remote areas, such as northern Norway and Alaska, USA, hospital capacity is limited and travel restrictions are severe, decreasing the fleets' possibilities to use external crews. Sweden is an exception in two ways: The industry has experienced no acute COVID19 issues yet it has not enforced a complete lockdown. Fish is also not as important for human consumption in Sweden as elsewhere. With most of the fish caught being used for fishmeal, market effects are expected to be less severe. Instead of COVID19 issues, many Swedish fisheries are currently struggling with recent closures due to other circumstances (i.e. Eastern Baltic cod and the summer bans for herring and sprat). 

In countries like the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland some small-scale fisher collectives have undertaken initiatives to improve direct sales via the internet.

WGSOCIAL will discuss ways to monitor the developments as they evolve. Considering the importance of fishing as a way of life for many, concerns were also expressed about social distancing practices on vessels and on the mental health of the many men and women active in the sector.

WGSOCIAL focuses on improving the integration of social sciences in ICES Ecosystem Overviews and integrated ecosystem assessments through the development of culturally relevant social indicators. Their work addresses Sea and society, Conservation and management science, and Seafood production, some of the seven science priorities that support our Strategic Plan. Discover our seven interrelated scientific priorities and how our network will address them in our Science Plan: “Marine ecosystem and sustainability science for the 2020s and beyond" .

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The impact of COVID 19 on fishing industries in ICES countries

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