Covid-19 and Small-Scale Fisheries
Markets Collapse and Fishers Left without Social Protection
Brussels, 3rd of April 2020
Last Wednesday 1 April, Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans, and Fisheries, contacted LIFE to ask about how the small scale fisheries sector is faring faced with the crisis caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. LIFE emphasised that a large section of the small-scale fleet is trying to keep active, to keep their livelihoods afloat, to provide locally caught fresh fish, but is facing huge difficulties to do so. With many markets closed, wholesale fresh fish prices have slumped, and there is restricted access to storage and alternative marketing facilities. Fishers also face difficulties to meet the new sanitary requirements and the social distancing measures. Because of these difficulties, a large part of the fleet has been forced to tie up.
The Commissioner informed LIFE about the new emergency measures that were being introduced through amendments made to the EMFF regulation ( https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=COM:2020:142:FIN). These are designed to make it easier for member states to access EMFF for temporary closure of activities and storage aid. Details of these and other new measures are provided via the link https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/coronavirus-response-fisheries-and-aquaculture_en.
In its communication, the Commission highlights the small-scale coastal fishing operators and fish producers have been particularly hard hit by the crisis.
LIFE explained that for those who wanted to keep active, this was no help; that in fact storage aid would most likely have a depressing effect on fish prices once the crisis eases. What active fishers need most is income support, and support to sell their fish direct to consumers. The Commissioner responded that such support can only be provided at member state level. The Commission could only help by using available funds to allow member states to respond with greater flexibility to the crisis.
He emphasised the important role that the small scale low impact fleet makes to local economies and to sustaining both the social and environmental aspects of fisheries. He was friendly and concerned. He has asked to be kept informed.
Jerry Percy, Senior Adviser to LIFE and Director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association [NUTFA] has sent us his personal view on the situation in the UK:
Impact of the Global Covid-19 Pandemic on UK Fisheries
Like almost every other element of UK industry, the fishing sector, right through the supply chain from net to plate is a mess of epic proportions and the effects of the pandemic will continue to have massive economic repercussions for the foreseeable future. However, for many boats in the UK fleet, a surge in demand for direct sales of fresh fish provides not only a lifeline, but could hopefully be the start of a renaissance of interest in the buying of fresh fish by households that have rarely if ever had the courage to buy fish that is not already covered in breadcrumbs.
The impact of the Coronavirus has almost overnight largely decimated those companies reliant on high end products such as dive caught scallops, lobster and crab, whilst prices for the main finfish species have crashed.
The vast majority of crews on the small scale, under ten metre fleet are paid on a share basis and appear to be as economically vulnerable as those in the gig economy in relation to the financial support terms, or lack of them, announced by the government at the time of writing. Proportionally more crews in the over ten sector are employed on a wage, and therefore able to access financial support, but nevertheless, the lack of direct financial support to the self employed is cause for concern irrespective of the size of vessel involved.
With boats landing to market prices falling by the moment, a strong landing of Pollack for instance crashing to £0.41 per kilo on Newlyn market having averaged around £4 in previous weeks, and with the skipper of one vessel landing a significant quantity of the species having leased quota at £0.50 per kilo to catch it in the first place, many boats are tying up rather than lose money. Merchants and processors, reflecting the loss of many export markets as well as reduced demand domestically, especially within the foodservice sector were reluctant to pay good money for fish that they may then get stuck with. To add to the problem, some processors sold off some of their frozen inventory to reduce their overheads, putting further downward pressure on prices. And to add insult to injury, many of the larger retailers, who had already reduced opening times for their fresh fish counters decided to close them altogether for lack of staff, and I guess the volatility of supplies.
First sale prices for a basket of species:
The graph above illustrates the reduction in first sale prices of an arbitrary range of species and sizes over the last couple of months. It is by no means scientific and ignores the quantities of fish landed by the day but does reflect the sort of landings from many inshore boats on the south coast.
The scale, speed and severity of the downturn in demand and therefore prices clearly came as a shock to many producers, processors and merchants, much of it driven by the loss of the primary market for fish in the UK, the foodservice sector. It is a fact that the home consumption of fresh fish in the UK has been falling for years, for a variety of reasons including changes in working practices, the availability of aptly named and highly processed convenience foods, including fish based products and a growing ignorance related to what to do to prepare a fresh fish. The old adage that the British consumer won’t touch anything with eyes or a pulse holds true for fish especially.
BUT, out of all this adversity has come an almost overnight change to the normal processes and supply chain logistics around the sale of fish to the UK consumer.
The demand for the established home delivery services of boxed fish has rocketed with supply struggling to keep pace with the rush of orders. Based in Plymouth, Sole of Discretion, [ https://soleofdiscretion.co.uk/ ] supplier of ethically sourced fish delivered to your door by them or via some of the well known home delivery services has seen much increased demand and Pesky Fish in London [ https://www.peskyfish.co.uk/ ]whose ground breaking supply chain approach connects buyers with same day supplies direct from inshore boats has had hundreds of new domestic customers signing up with them every day.
This step change in domestic demand for high quality fresh fish has been matched in many areas by the increased custom at fishmongers across the country.
Although these changes are of little if any benefit to the producers of high end and expensive shellfish, for many of the boats in the UK fleet, it is or at least appears to be not only a lifeline in terms of keeping the boats at sea but hopefully the start of a renaissance of interest in the buying of fresh fish by households that have rarely if ever had the courage to buy fish that is not already covered in breadcrumbs.
At the same time, maritime based charities have stepped up their support to the fishing sector.
Recent studies commissioned by the leader in the field of maritime charities, Seafarers UK, [ https://www.seafarers.uk/news/seafarers-uk-statement-on-covid-19/ ]had already identified the social, mental, economic and physical challenges faced by many within the inshore catching sector and they, along with the Fishermen’s Mission [ https://www.fishermensmission.org.uk/ ], Fishmongers Company [ https://fishmongers.org.uk/ ], the Seafarers Advice and Information Line [ http://sailine.org.uk/ ]and many other charities have risen to the increasing challenges faced by fishermen at this time.
As ever, the Seafish Industry Authority [ https://www.seafish.org/article/coronavirus-updates-for-the-seafood-industry ], is coordinating information and advice and signposting support for fishermen across the UK as well as feeding information to various government departments in regard to the specific challenges facing the fishing sector in its entirety.
DEFRA have created a Fisheries Covid-19 Industry Working Group to ensure that up to date intelligence across the entire panoply of the fishing industry is available to them and both Westminster and Scottish governments are apparently actively considering ways to support their share fishermen. [NB: at the time of writing there are strong rumours of support for share fishermen and the self employed but nothing concrete as yet. We can only hope that the government comes good or we won’t have much of an inshore sector left post virus].
As part of the group, we have been lobbying government for a relaxation in relation to access to quota for shell fishermen unable to sell crab and lobster, a relaxation of the 30kg per day restriction on direct private sales by fishermen and a similar approach to allow fishermen to process and sell fish whilst ensuring safe and hygienic practices.
The main need for the catching sector remains a fair deal for all share fishermen and the self employed segment. In light of the recent requirements to avoid close contact, many boats will be forced to tie up as it is of course impossible to self isolate aboard ship or stay two metres away from each other!
In addition, a vast range of both local and national initiatives are underway or in development to meet the increasing demand for home delivered fish. These range from individual fishermen advertising on the internet through to larger cooperative approaches such as:
https://www.seafoodcornwall.org.uk/fishtoyourdoor/ [with excellent advice for fishermen seeking to sell their own catch directly].
and many others. And of course, numerous fishmongers are turning to home deliveries as well as retaining well stocked shops: http://www.fishmongers.info/find/find.php
Seafish together with DEFRA had launched their Sea for Yourself campaign in March of this year and whilst it may have been thought to have been unfortunate timing, it is in fact timely in underpinning the obviously increasing interest in buying and cooking fresh fish [ https://www.seafish.org/article/sea-for-yourself ]. In addition, processors are looking to provide more packaged fresh fish products for the chilled cabinets of major retailers and these will carry a link to the Seafish website for recipes and cooking advice.
So like almost every other element of UK industry, the fishing sector, right through the supply chain from net to plate is a mess of epic proportions and the effects of the pandemic will continue to have massive economic repercussions for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, many fishermen are battling on, still going to sea to land fish for what we can only hope is a rapidly expanding domestic market.