The coronavirus pandemic could have a huge impact on fisheries, predicts an international panel of researchers. ‘Although it varies a lot between countries, depending on their fisheries culture,’ says Marloes Kraan, an anthropologist at Wageningen Marine Research and co-chair of the panel.
Twenty five researchers from 12 different countries met last week to discuss the social impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the fisheries sector. They are members of the ‘social’ working group at ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), an international network for marine scientists.
Two main problems have arisen for the sector due to the coronavirus crisis. ‘Firstly, fisheries are heavily dependent on international trade,’ says Kraan. ‘That is now severely hampered by measures such as closed borders and fewer flights.’ The Netherlands, for example, exports about 80 per cent of its fish, mainly to France, Spain and Italy. So if those markets get smaller, it has an effect on the Netherlands. The closed borders cause other problems. For example, the shrimps caught by Dutch fishers in the North Sea are usually peeled in Morocco, but that country is in lockdown. .
A second problem is that a lot of the trade is in fresh fish and shellfish destined for restaurants, hotels and cafeteria – a branch that is now closed nearly everywhere. ‘It is precisely the small-scale fisheries that seem to be affected by that in the first instance,’ says Kraan. ‘Large shipping companies often have the facilities to freeze their catch.’
On the other hand, in some countries such as Germany, more tinned fish is being sold, as people have started hoarding it. ‘And some Dutch fisheries are dealing with the loss of the restaurant trade by switching to different fish – fishing for plaice instead of sole, which is mainly sold to restaurants.’
The kinds of problems that arise also depend a lot on the fisheries culture, says Kraan. ‘In certain regions of Spain, for example, the fishing fleet is owned by the fishers, whereas once a state of emergency was declared, all power went to the federal government. Initially, this caused some confusion as to who made decisions.’ Entirely different problems were in play in remote areas such as Alaska and the north of Norway, where strict travel bans were in place due to the limited capacity of hospitals. This makes it difficult to hire fishers from elsewhere, which is what usually happens. An exception at the moment is Sweden, a country where the fisheries have not yet encountered many problems, says Kraan. ‘Firstly because Sweden doesn’t have a complete lockdown, and secondly because the fisheries there are geared to catching fish for the fishmeal industry, for feeding farmed fish.’
The researchers will continue to follow developments. Kraan: ‘It is going extremely fast and changing from day to day. We know, for instance, that the Dutch shrimp fishing boats are already putting to sea again, so solutions are being found quickly.’ She will soon conduct a survey among fishers to see how they are doing. ‘It’s not just about the economic impact,’ says Kraan. ‘For many fishers, fishing is a way of life that has gone on for generations. If your business goes bust, it is not easy for you to do anything else. It would mean losing a big part of your identity.’ Kraan particularly hopes that science can learn from this situation. ‘We are looking at which measures different countries are taking and what works, so we can advise governments better on how they can help fisheries get through this crisis.’