Evaluating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small-scale fisheries and its markets

Safety measures against the COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly damaging for small-scale fishers’ livelihoods. An IIED-led project aims to evaluate the impacts and identify initiatives for small-scale fishers to build back better.

October 2020 - December 2021
Annabelle Bladon

Senior researcher (fisheries), Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

Inclusive blue economy
A programme of work supporting resilient marine and coastal ecosystems and the millions of people who depend on them to thrive by aligning incentives with investments
Vendor cutting fish in the market.

Fish market on Madeira Island during the COVID-19 pandemic, Portugal (Photo: copyright Cristina Pita, IIED) 

The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in unprecedented lockdowns worldwide, with devastating economic consequences. Fisheries and supply chains of fresh fish have been hit hard as seafood products are among the most highly traded foods globally, with 38% of total fish production (PDF) entering international trade.

Restrictive measures against the pandemic, though necessary, are particularly damaging for small-scale fisheries. The sector is crucial to people’s nutrition, food security, sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing worldwide as it employs 90% of the people engaged in fisheries (around 36.7 million), with hundreds of million more engaged indirectly.  

This project is part of IIED’s work to support the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 (IYAFA 2022), and it aims to evaluate the impacts COVID-19 has had on small-scale fishers globally, as well as identify solutions to move forward after the pandemic. 

What is IIED doing? 

IIED has joined forces with researchers from 33 countries around the globe to:  

  • Assess the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on small-scale fisheries around the globe, and 
  • Investigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on selected small-scale fisheries over time. 

Current evidence from a rapid assessment by IIED and partners shows that most small-scale fisheries worldwide suffered a substantial economic impact, from which most did not yet recover despite the reopening of the global economy in early July.  

Small-scale fishers are usually paid on a share basis, which makes them economically vulnerable to the standstill caused by the recent health measures, such as social distancing and closures. In return, this limits their access to a daily income.

The continuous need for physical distancing also makes it harder to keep fishing ports and auctions fully operational. This restricts the amount that can be landed, but small-scale fishers need to land daily. In addition, the limited space onboard of small vessels can increase health risks for fishers, and consequently for fishing communities. 

Importantly, small-scale fishing activities, especially those targeting high-quality ('luxury') seafood, are heavily dependent on the HORECA (hotel, restaurants and cafes) channels in the largest seafood markets worldwide (the European Union (EU), United States, Japan) and on tourism.  

Small-scale fishing activities in developed nations are mostly dependent on domestic high-end markets and many of their counterparts in developing countries are dependent on exports to these markets. 

Evidence indicates that travel restrictions and mandatory closures of the food services and hotel industries in the EU and the US, China’s bans on imports of seafood due to fears of contamination, and the decline of global travel (and consequent absence of tourists) resulted in a crash in demand with knock-on economic effects. 

On top of expanding on the current research work, IIED will also produce a series of infographics on the impact of COVID-19 on small-scale fisheries in several countries around the globe, and a scientific publication focused on the global impact of COVID-19 on small-scale fisheries.

Impact of COVID-19 on fisheries

Scroll through infographics focused on the impact of COVID-19 on small-scale fisheries, or use IIED's Flickr site to see larger versions

What’s next? 

The small-scale fisheries sector, scientists, governments and international organisations need to come together to co-design actions to ensure equity, the economic viability and resilience of coastal communities without compromising the resources they depend upon.  

IIED is seeking to work with actors in small-scale seafood systems, developing work on several important issues to build back better from COVID-19.  

The institute aims to shine a light on:  

  • The impact of COVID-19 on women in the seafood value chain: women represent 47% of the total small-scale fisheries workforce, which in developing countries equates to 56 million jobs (PDF). Women working in pre-harvest and post-harvest are particularly vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19.  

Their work is still largely invisible and, in most countries, women’s labour rights in the fishing sector are not yet legally recognised, rendering them unable to apply for financial aid.

What was the impact caused by the disruption along the seafood value chain on women employed in harvesting, aquaculture, seafood processing and selling? What problems and priorities need to be addressed? What mitigation measures worked, where, and under what conditions? 

This information is critical to understand the implications of COVID-19 in our progress to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: gender equality. 

  • Grassroot market initiatives and what made them successful: the rapid assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on small-scale fisheries carried out by IIED points to increases in local sales initiatives around the globe (such as direct sale schemes, door-to-door deliveries, community supported fisheries, e-sales, and so on) as a form to mitigate the economic impact caused by the lockdowns.  

What market initiatives were successful in mitigating the economic impact caused by the loss of international markets, tourism and domestic markers? What made them successful? What is needed for these initiatives to continue in the post-COVID era? This knowledge is critical to contribute to continue our progress to the achievement of SDG14.B: provide access of small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets. 

If you want to discuss working with us in these and other areas, contact Cristina Pita ([email protected]).