Small boats and female workers hardest hit by Covid-19 fisheries impact

Small fishing boats, fish markets and female workers are among the categories worst affected by the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis on the world’s fisheries, research has found.

Supply chains around the world have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and artisanal fishing – small boats – has borne the brunt, according to the annual report on fisheries by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). While industrial fishing fell only by about 6.5% in April, a large proportion of small vessels around the world have been in effect confined to port, and their markets are uncertain.

In parts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, more than 90% of small-scale fishing fleets have had to stop fishing owing to a lack of markets and falling prices.

The closure of restaurants, hotels and catering has cut off markets for small boats and led to falling prices, and the resulting disruption has led to an increase in waste, according to an appendix to the annual report, published on Monday for World Oceans Day.

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Some of these effects are hard to quantify as yet. The main report was prepared before the coronavirus crisis hit, so the appendix contains only preliminary information rather than extensive research, but it indicates a growing difficulty for many small fishing fleets around the world.

Women make up at least half of the labour force in fisheries and fish farms, and have been particularly affected by the Covid-19 crisis, according to the report. The economic impact of restricted sales and the difficulty of finding routes to market has been compounded by the closure of processing operations and markets, where many women are employed, and by the risk of infection they face when working in fish processing warehouses or markets. Many have had to work longer hours under unsafe conditions.

Countries are urged to keep their supply chains running and their borders open to trade in fish – about 38% of fish is internationally traded – to help small-scale fishers cope amid the crisis.

While small fishing fleets have faced hardship, some massive industrial trawlers have kept up their operations – Greenpeace recently tracked the movements of some mega trawlers around the UK coast – to the consternation of local fishing fleets.

Philip Evans, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said: “This continuing industrial fishing activity is in the context of an ocean in crisis, with many fish populations already on the brink of collapse. Once the pandemic is over, attention must turn again to reforming global fisheries governance and placing at least 30% of the world’s oceans off limits to fishing activity, to give fish populations space to recover from decades of destructive industrial fishing activity.”

Around the world, fish consumption reached a record high last year, according to the FAO’s report. Per capita consumption hit 20.5kg for the year and is expected to increase, with total fish production predicted to rise to 204m tonnes in 2030, which would be an increase of 15% on 2018.

Fishing was worth about $400bn (GBP316bn) around the world in 2018, according to the report, of which close to half was from fish farming, in which China is the global leader.

“Fish and fisheries products are recognised not only as some of the healthiest foods on the planet, but also as some of the less impactful on the natural environment,” said Qu Dongyu, the director general of the FAO.

But more effort is needed to improve the management and rebuilding of fish stocks, or increased consumption will come at the expense of serious damage to fish populations. More than a third of fish stocks globally are fished at unsustainable levels, according to the FAO.

There has been some success in the past year in fostering more sustainable fisheries, according to the report, which points to tuna fisheries, of which two-thirds are now fished at sustainable levels. While insufficient, that represents substantial progress, as the proportion fished sustainably has risen by 10 percentage points in two years, the report says.

“The improvement, the fruit of contributions from many stakeholders, attests to the importance of active management to reach and maintain biological sustainability, and serves to underscore how urgently we must replicate such approaches in fisheries and regions where management systems are in poor shape,” said Manuel Barange, the director of the FAO’s fisheries and aquaculture department.

Despite the report’s upbeat findings, concerns remain around the fishing of tuna, as the Guardian has reported, highlighting the difficulty in squaring the global demand for a sustainable source of protein and the poor governance that prevails in many fishing areas.

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