Hakai Magazine

tuna fishers unloading catch in the Maldives
Experts say small-scale fishers are important for preserving local food security. Photo by byvalet/Shutterstock

The Pandemic Changed How People Buy Fish—and Small Fishers Couldn’t Keep Up

Small-scale fishers, often overlooked by government aid, were less able to adapt to changing market conditions than large companies. As a result, many lost out to bigger players.

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by Brian Owens

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The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the global fishing industry. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, and disruptions to supply chains all conspired to depress demand for fresh fish in markets and restaurants, while simultaneously driving an increase in demand for frozen and processed products. Against these changing demands, fishers scrambled to keep up.

Fishers’ ability to adapt was unequal, however, and according to a report by Future of Fish, a nonprofit organization focused on ending overfishing, that has transformed the fishing industry in important ways.

The report highlights several key trends in how COVID-19 changed the industry. These include seeing fishers diversifying their target species, markets, and sales channels; investing in “buffers” like financial savings and new equipment to build resiliency; adopting new high-tech production and marketing methods; and increasingly focusing on local and domestic markets. But while both large- and small-scale fishers were making similar types of changes, larger industrial fleets, the report shows, were often better placed to take advantage of the situation. With many small-scale fishing communities unable to compete, they have lost ground to their bigger competitors.

“The things that hurt small-scale fishers in normal times are also what put them at a disadvantage in an emergency,” says Stephanie Stinson, communications manager for Future of Fish. The more informal status of small-scale fishers, who may not be registered businesses, for instance, often excluded them from government emergency supports that might have helped them pivot to more resilient business models.

With more than three billion people relying on fish as their primary source of protein, particularly in many of the least developed countries, it is important to maintain and protect small-scale fisheries as a source of food security and livelihoods, says Stinson.

“The loss of small-scale fishers would instigate and exacerbate grievous food security and livelihood concerns for coastal communities worldwide,” she says. “Allowing small-scale fishers to be absorbed by the efforts of industrial fleets cannot be an option.”

The Maldives tuna fishery offers just one example of this shift. In that country, small-scale tuna fishers who typically rely on air freight to export fresh fish were cut off from their main markets when air transportation was suspended early on in the pandemic. They were unable to compete with industrial fleets that could freeze, store, and later ship product to foreign markets.

The closure of restaurants and fish markets also disproportionately affected small-scale fishers, the report says. Many artisanal fishers have built their businesses by offering high quality, local, responsibly sourced fish—attributes rewarded by chefs. Yet here, too, large operators have muscled in on their turf. In the Chilean hake fishery, for example, industrial fleets previously exported most of their frozen product. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, they have increased their sales in local retail and open-air markets—the main markets for artisanal fishers. Once those markets are lost, it can be difficult for artisanal fishers to regain their foothold.

Some small-scale producers, however, did manage to successfully adapt to the new reality, with many pivoting to selling their products online through Facebook and Instagram, says Stinson. Fish Tiangge, an online marketplace in the Philippines, connects an estimated 6,000 fishers to 300,000 households through its Facebook page, with deliveries done by local pedicab drivers. The project is supported by the United States Agency for International Development, but gets little other funding.

“Imagine how much more business these fishers could have conducted had they been equipped with a larger suite of digital tools and training, for instance, to build more of a digital brand or to accept digital payment,” says Stinson.

Jessica Gephart, an environmental scientist at American University in Washington, DC, who was not involved in the report, says that small-scale local fisheries form an important part of a diversified food supply chain that, along with larger industrial fleets, can absorb and deal with both local and international disruptions. Small-scale fishers, however, can often be outcompeted by larger companies, she says, while at the same time being disadvantaged when it comes to securing relief funds during an emergency like the pandemic. Governments, therefore, need to look at how they can help support and maintain these local suppliers, she says.

“If we value these local producers for cultural reasons or for the purpose of building a more resilient system, then it might be something we have to invest in to even out the playing field,” Gephart says.