PRINCETON, New Jersey — The global seafood market is a huge industry that employs millions of people. Valued at $159 billion in 2019, it will grow to almost $200 billion by 2027. The system is a network of formal and informal producers and distributors, retailers and consumers. In low-income countries, the fishing industry is especially important as a way to reduce poverty. Developing countries employ 97% of the people, directly and indirectly, working in the fishing industry. About 90% of the fishing workforce are small-scale fishermen. By exporting seafood, low-income countries can boost their economies through the oceanic sector. The fishing industry also helps to increase nutrition and food security for the impoverished. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has devastated the fishing industry, just as it has most other industries.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Fisheries
The pandemic has disrupted supply chains and lowered demand, reducing profits in the industry. Lockdowns and curfews have also reduced catch sizes, which in turn means that fisherfolk make less per day of work. What they do not sell often goes to waste as cold storage is expensive and not widely available to small-scale fishermen. The most affected groups are small and medium-scale fisheries, especially in rural areas, as they lack the resources that large-scale fisheries have to be able to transition and adapt during COVID-19. Furthermore, they do not have the safety net of social protection programs that large-scale fisheries may have.
Many developing countries with large fishing sectors have been struggling to offset the effects of COVID-19. In Thailand and India, migrant fish workers were met with lockdowns and nowhere to sell their products. Traders in India and Myanmar reported a 15% drop in fish prices post-lockdowns. In China, a shift to frozen and processed seafood left fresh-catch fishers floundering.
The Nutritional Implications
Besides the loss of income, supply chain disruptions have led to a reduction in fish consumption in low-income countries. Fish is very important to the global food chain as it represents a nutritious source of food that is often more affordable than meat or poultry. The FAO estimates that in 2016, fish provided about 3.2 billion people with almost 20% of their average intake of animal protein, with an even higher proportion in low-income countries. But, as household incomes have decreased due to lockdowns, people around the world have bought less fish. Small-scale farmers in Myanmar, a country with a large fishing sector, have reported buying less animal-sourced food and shifting toward staple foods during the pandemic.
There is a diminished supply of fish available for those in low-income countries, which makes a once staple food in low-income households, a food that is no longer available. It is also unaffordable because the lower supply means that fish prices are seeing a sharp rise, which puts fish products out of reach for the impoverished. This situation directly impacts overall nutrition in low-income households.
PROBLUE and PROFISH
Luckily, there are many organizations working to address this global issue. PROBLUE, a Multi-Donor Trust Fund run by the World Bank, helps countries develop their oceanic sectors with the goals of ending extreme poverty and increasing the quality of life of the impoverished in a sustainable way.
Under the umbrella of PROBLUE, there are other trust funds focusing on more targeted issues. One of them is PROFISH, which focuses on maximizing the economic benefits of fisheries in developing countries. It works to capture the “sunken billions” — an estimated $80 billion that is lost every year by the fishing industry. PROFISH does this by designing and implementing good governance systems through investments and partnerships as well as providing knowledge to those in the aquaculture sectors on how to create sustainable wealth and improve the efficiency of the fishing industry.
If efficiency increases, millions of impoverished people in the fishing industry could improve their economic circumstances. PROFISH has been put in place in developing countries all around the world that hold an opportunity for the fishing sector to dramatically improve.
Future of Fish
Future of Fish is a nonprofit working to directly mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the fishing industry in South America. In Peru, it works with other NGOs, fishermen, chefs and local media to increase demand for seafood to offset the pandemic drops. It has used social media to facilitate buying and selling and supported transport logistics to help move fish from the coast to market centers and customers.
It also launched a campaign to supply small fishing villages with the protective equipment needed to safely sell seafood products. Future of Fish also runs on-the-ground initiatives to help fishermen export their catches. In Peru, the mahi mahi fishery is the second-largest artisanal fishery, Future of Fish has implemented traceability programs along all steps of the supply chain to make sure that the catches can be verified as “Best Choice” by Seafood Watch, and therefore, be accepted into the U.S. by the FDA.
Online Fish Markets
Creative solutions are also popping up. Developed by USAID as part of the Fish Right project, online fish markets in the Philippines allow fisherfolk to maintain their main source of income. Fish Tiangge is an online marketplace that connects 6,000 fisherfolk with consumers from more than 300,000 households. “By connecting fishers and consumers online, the U.S. government is helping to protect fisherfolk income and prevent a food crisis, while ensuring that conservation measures are not compromised in areas that are hard-hit by COVID-19,” says U.S. ambassador, Sung Kim.
A Rainbow After the Rain
COVID-19 has significantly impacted the lives of fisherfolk across the globe. Fortunately, governments and organizations are working to help them by creating lasting impacts that will remain even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. With the sustained investment of the global community, the fishing industry can reach its full potential as a vehicle for poverty reduction.
– Brooklyn Quallen