Amid coronavirus, fishermen return from sea with big catch, no place to sell

UK seafood hopes Brits will catch taste for fish amid coronavirus shock

Amid coronavirus, fishermen return from sea with big catch, no place to sell

British eaters are famously, and curiously for an island-nation, unadventurous when it comes to fish.

The UK exports around 70% of its seafood catch to Europe and Asia, including sought-after delicacies such as salmon, lobster, langoustines, cuttlefish, crab, whiting and lemon sole.

The value of UK seafood exported to Europe and beyond amounts to about £1.5bn (€ 1.6bn) every year, according to industry authority Seafish.

Meanwhile, around 70-80% of the seafood consumed in the UK – mainly the ‘big five’ of cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns — comes from overseas. 

Receding overseas demand amid coronavirus has therefore hit the industry hard. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO) calls the virus a ‘temporary but undoubtedly severe shock’.

Crab was an early victim, it reported. The sector had been enjoying increased demand from China but has now seen a dramatic fall in price. Restaurant and open market closures in Italy, France and Spain have also impacted species such as cuttlefish, monkfish, hake and megrim. Spain’s per capita consumption of hake is around 6kg per annum, for example.

The NFFO reported that individual fishing businesses and producer organisations are taking their own steps to mitigate impacts by arranging shorter trips, staggering and planning landings, reducing quantities landed, in order to avoid flooding the market and triggering a price collapse.

“The shellfish market seems to be very badly affected,”​ NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas told FoodNavigator. “A lot of that is the hospitality and restaurant trade, and also the export market… there are anxieties about what might happen there.”​

‘A potential reorientation towards the British market’

But a silver lining, according to Deas, could be improved demand from British consumers. “We're seeing port-level initiatives to sell and deliver directly to doorstep taking off. It's small in comparison to the main supply chains, but it is definitely developing and quite rapidly in some places,”​ he said.

“If you wanted to try crab, lobster, dover sole, and some of these more exotic and quite expensive species, this might be a very good time to do it and have it delivered to your home in some cases. We are looking for a reorientation towards the British market. This is a very good time to try some of these less favoured species.”​

He stressed that demand, not supply, was being hit. “The fish is being landed in quantities – the first part of the supply chain is there and ready – it's the demand side that's affected by this virus. It will be interesting to see what adaptations will take place.”  ​

He noted, too, that British consumers, while traditionally unadventurous with fish, were becoming slightly better. “At one time monkfish and prawns were thrown away as undesirable bycatch and now they are their most valuable components in the catch.”​ 

‘An opportunity for people to try UK seafood’

It’s a similar story in the salmon market. According to the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, the sector is witnessing a drop in demand from China, but also an upturn in UK sales as people rush to buy foods for their freezers.  

Industry body Seafish agrees the situation is grave, but one that does present an opportunity for people to try UK seafood. A spokesperson told FoodNavigator: “We’ve already observed very low prices for some fish and shellfish landed in UK ports and markets.

This happened immediately after the usual export routes were closed. While exporting is not possible, fishing businesses without established UK supply chains are struggling to get prices high enough to cover their costs so may be unable to go to sea.

However, some parts of the UK fishing fleet can still supply their existing UK customers and continue to operate.​

“While UK consumers are not used to eating some of the locally caught species, the current situation does present a good opportunity for people to try UK seafood. Consumers can contact fish mongers and fish delivery vans to see what they have available and in some supermarkets, there is seafood still available.”​

Seafish is supporting a new Defra marketing campaign which aims to get more UK consumers to eat more seafood caught in UK waters.

The #SeaForYourself campaign launched last week (the timing with coronavirus was a coincidence) and is scheduled to run until early May.

It highlights the healthy and great tasting seafood caught and landed in the UK, and offers consumers guidance on buying, cooking and eating species that they might not be confident about preparing.

'A huge opportunity for small-scale fisheries' 

Caroline Bennett, founder of Sole of Discretion, a collective of small-scale fishers fishing sustainably Plymouth harbour in Devon on the English south-west coast, told FoodNavigator that coronavirus is definitely having an impact on fisheries and prices. 

“Spain and Italy just aren't buying,”​ she said. “80% of the fish landed in the south west goes overseas and mainly to Europe. So it's having a huge impact that they are not buying.”​ 

However, she hopes that the market situation could bring openings for smaller fisheries. Hake and cuttlefish were once going to Spain but are now 'coming more to our own markets', for instance.

She added: “The boats are saying because prices have fallen, they are not going to go out to sea.

If the bigger boats tie up this could potentially be a wonderful opportunity for the smaller boats to go out there and catch a myriad of species and try and sell into the local market and try and get British people to eat it.”​ 

The myriad of ‘cheap and plentiful species’ includes whiting, colie, pouting, ling, flounder, dab, and dogfish.

These fish are usually 'at the bottom of the wish list for most people', but this reputation is undeserved, she said. “I think colie and pouting are two of the most underrated species for the price they are.

They are delicate sweet tasting fish. Dogfish is a bit swordfish steak – dense meat that goes well in stews and curries.”​

‘We need to make sure our food security and biodiversity remain priorities’

The Marine Conservation Society warned that huge demand for previously ‘under-utilised species can have dangerous knock-on effects for the environment’.

“We don’t want responsible fishermen desperate to make money using less sustainable methods to increase catches at the expense of marine life​,” a spokesperson told FoodNavigator.

Neither did it agree that the coronavirus pandemic was ly to precipitate a dramatic shift in UK’s seafood appetite. “Whilst Brexit presents barriers to international trade, COVID-19 stops it entirely.

Trade within the UK and access to fish for consumers will be hit very hard, with many supermarkets announcing the closure of their fish counters in the past days.

However, unfortunately, coronavirus is unly to make British consumers buy more unusual, locally caught seafood, Britain has never really had an appetite for seafood from its own waters. ​

“Today, Brits have a fear factor about fish that the Spanish, French and Italians don’t seem to have, hence the demand for portion-sized fillets of larger species cod, haddock, salmon, tuna.

While there might be a growing appetite for species outside of the ‘Big Five’, there are a lot of barriers to Brits actually purchasing and consuming a wider range of seafood, both in knowledge, but also access.

Most high street fishmongers have closed down and supermarkets rarely stock more unusual British species, as they don’t really sell and don’t come in the huge volumes needed to sate huge supply chains.”​

The spokesperson continued: “Despite this global crisis, we need to make sure our food security and biodiversity remain priorities.”​ 


Fishing fleets say NOAA observers are too risky amid pandemic

Amid coronavirus, fishermen return from sea with big catch, no place to sell

Commercial fishing boats docked at Saquatucket Municipal Marina in Harwich Port, Mass. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Posted April 10, 2020 at 6:30am

Fishing fleets in the U.S. are taking a gamble during this public health crisis by pursuing their catch despite swooning customer demand, a hazy future and the risk crew members could contract the coronavirus.

While commercial fishermen are checking temperatures, wearing gloves and self-isolating, they are looking to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to step in and waive a federal requirement to carry independent observers on trips to sea. They say the agency has been slow to react, instead issuing a patchwork of waivers.

To gather scientific data, track species and keep watch on the industry, NOAA manages an observer program — a network of specialists who climb aboard ships and document what they see and hear.

But as the virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, upend daily life in the U.S. and abroad, people in the industry say they are worried about continuing to place potentially infected observers on ships in close proximity with crew members, who already operate in tight quarters.

“It’s virtually impossible to maintain six-foot separation,” said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, headquartered in San Francisco. Deckhands often work shoulder-to-shoulder to haul in their catch, eat in tight galleys and rest bunked a few feet apart. “You can’t really sleep in different spots.”

In late March, NOAA’s fishery division issued a temporary waiver to allow some vessels in some waters of the Northeast, the Pacific, Hawaii and Alaska to apply for exemptions from the observer program on a case-by-case basis. Regional NOAA offices in New England and Florida followed with temporary waivers of their own.

“To keep seafood supplied to markets during these extraordinary times, NOAA Fisheries issued an emergency action on March 24, 2020 to provide the authority to waive observer coverage, some training, and other program requirements temporarily on a case-by-case basis,” Jasmine Blackwell, an agency spokeswoman, said of that exemption.

But NOAA has not issued a national waiver or a waiver that extends for more than a few weeks, concerning fishermen in the U.S., where the industry operates between 25,000 and 27,000 commercial fishing boats in American territorial waters, and throwing their plans into uncertainty at a moment when demand from restaurants and overseas markets is flagging.

Low prices and medical risks are top of mind for Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, based in Sitka.

“Because restaurants are closed, prices for fresh markets disappeared and prices have dropped 35, 40 percent,” Behnken said of fish Alaskan vessels are seeking now, including halibut. “The other big issue is observers, who are traditionally flown into remote areas and sent out on boats.”

Not every vessel requires an observer for every trip, and some observers, who typically work alone but can operate in pairs on larger boats, are stationed at docks or processing facilities. Depending on the fishery, observer coverage can vary from nearly zero percent to complete, according to Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with the advocacy group Oceana.

About 850 observers, who could bounce from boat to boat to boat in a matter of days, deployed during 2019 on commercial fishing vessels. They jot down what is caught, what is thrown back and report the results.

Behnken worries observers could spread the virus, which is highly contagious, to a small town and trigger an outbreak, overwhelming the local medical system.

“Our communities here, for the most part are not connected to road systems, they're really isolated rural communities with really limited medical facilities,” she said.

Her organization, which represents small vessels, received waivers for two weeks, she said. But those expired Thursday, leaving Behnken dangling as she plans for the season.

No cases reported

In interviews with leaders in the commercial fishing industry with vessels operating in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and around island nations in the South Pacific, no one reported positive COVID-19 diagnoses.

The Homeland Security Department named farming and fishing critical industries during the pandemic. But fishermen said they are worried about space on the boats and close quarters in the bunk room. Gloves are part of the job, but not everyone has proper masks.

On April 2, Canada issued a temporary 45-day ban on at-sea observers for commercial fishing, citing health risks from COVID-19.

In a letter to NOAA, William Gibbons-Fly, head of the American Tunaboat Association, said the observer requirement for western and central Pacific vessels were waived days before, adding that the supplies and airplane service was dwindling in the region and a StarKist fish cannery in American Samoa could close. Gibbons-Fly said his association wants the agency to exempt tuna boats from observer requirements.

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Gibbons-Fly said he was skeptical the absence of observers would lead to crews breaking rules on what they keep, adding that a lot of the scientific data can be gathered dockside by observers or at canneries.

“At port, when the fish is offloaded, you can get a lot of the data, such as size and species composition,” Gibbons-Fly said.

In 2018, the most recent year with NOAA data available, commercial fishing brought in 9.4 billion pounds of catch worth an estimated $5.6 billion dollars, according to the agency.

NOAA manages nearly 500 stocks of fish in federal waters, between 3 miles from shore and 200 miles out to sea.

Data collection

Brogan said he’s concerned removing at-sea coverage could alter fisheries where observers are integral to their management.

“What's going to happen? How are those fisheries going to be administered in the absence of the observer coverage? And what risks does that present to either those fisheries or those protected species, to those fish that are bycatch?” Brogan said, using a term for animals caught accidentally.

“There are a lot of different ways to collect information about what fishermen are catching, keeping and shoveling over the side,” he said. “Observers are the most reliable way to do that.”

Congress included $300 million in economic aid for the fishing industry in its $2.3 trillion relief package passed in response to the coronavirus. The Commerce Department will distribute that money as grants and direct payments, but fishermen said it ly won’t be enough.

Beyond the observer hurdle, Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, said the customers have vanished.

“The elimination of restaurants, the elimination of markets, the major depression of the demand, just makes it really difficult to figure out what to do next,” Rolbein said by phone.Ben Martens, head of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said the industry historically overlooked local customers in favor of international markets and restaurants.

Roughly two-thirds of the $102.2 billion buyers spending on “fishery products” in 2017 happened at restaurants, according to NOAA figures.

To bring in some cash, Conroy, in California, said fishermen in the state’s south are selling directly at fish markets to cope during the crisis.

Ashford Rosenberg, a policy analyst at the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, said the pandemic and the loss of revenue from lackluster tourism dealt a one-two blow to the Gulf region.

“It's been kind of a double whammy,” she said. “It’s not great,” adding that some fishermen are adapting by selling to smaller buyers.

Sales are down for vessels as much as half, said Rosenberg, whose group is tracking these figures. “It kind of ranges, but no one is saying that they're at the same place,” she said. “They're either anywhere from 10 to more than 50 percent less in sales or product costs than there were last year.”

CQ Roll Call is a part of FiscalNote, the leading technology innovator at the intersection of global business and government. Copyright 2021 CQ Roll Call. All rights reserved.


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