The Impact of COVID-19 on Small-Scale Fisheries

By Katherine Burns

Image by Markus Winkler. His profile can be found here.

When COVID-19 first hit back in early 2020, the impact on small-scale fishing communities was both instantaneous and devastating. They have faced much adversity, including the loss of international markets, lack of tourism, and local buyers. They’ve had to make pivots when it comes to fishing in a way that is “COVID-19 safe.” Small-scale fisheries are essential for establishing food security, in both developed and developing nations.

“They’re connected to a global market,” explained SSF researcher Ruyel Miah. “When COVID-19 struck, the international market stopped, shut down.”

Small-scale fishers are dependent upon middlemen, who are typically traders. They have little to no right to bargain with these domestic traders, which cultivates an unfair power dynamic. The impact of the pandemic has been felt heavily by them. With limited resources, some small-scale fishers have reduced their meal plans from three meals a day, to two or one.

“They’ve tried to utilize more fish for their own consumption rather than selling to the market because the market was closed, said Miah.

The safety of fishers is also called into question if crew members are reduced, which is the case for small-scale operations, regardless. A study commissioned by the FAO in April 2020 upholds this claim.

“The virus may spread rapidly among all crew of a vessel and medical assistance is unlikely to be readily available. When trying to enter a port, crew that are not from the port State may not be allowed to enter the country. In addition, many crew members, just like small-scale farmers, are considered self-employed and do not currently qualify for employment or paid leave.”

This preceding statement describing small-scale fishers as “self-employed” seems to fit well with the government response. In terms of COVID-19 relief, and compensation for people in the small-scale fishing sector, there is very little evidence that governments/governing bodies have been providing them with any support. In an official capacity, the small-scale fishing sector employs millions of people, while indirectly impacting the lives of so many more.

“More than 90 percent of the workers in the fish processing sector are women,” explained Miah. “There has been no specific support for developing countries.” Some small-scale fishers have been forced to seek alternative jobs, such as working in the fields.

FAO also notes that women who commonly are involved in the postharvest process are more susceptible to COVID-19 infections because it is difficult to maintain social distancing, and restrictions are not easy to enforce in the market setting. Fishers typically reside in migratory patterns, frequently crossing borders into other countries, as previously mentioned. Therefore, these fishing communities can be infected at a higher rate, especially in developing countries where they have not yet received the vaccine.

However, some small-scale fishing communities have been able to make strides despite the pandemic. A journal from Coastal Management affirms this statement.

“Worldwide, local food networks and community-supported fisheries (CSFs) have emerged to fill some of the gaps left by COVID-19 related market disruptions. As demand for direct delivery to households is increasing, SSF have been able to adapt their distribution models to keep their production stable, creating and strengthening direct connections with local household consumers.”

Adapting their distribution models for some communities means making a shift to online marketing. An example of this is Abalobi. They are South-African based enterprise that attempts to utilize technology to aid small-scale fisheries. They have been able to facilitate the sale of products, and even help establish a delivery system. This has been happening in other fishing communities as well, but it is far from a perfect solution because many developing countries have limited or no access to that kind of technology.

Finding a singular solution to represent a multicultural, multifaceted industry is unlikely. However, finding ways to adapt in the small-scale fishing industry, despite not receiving proper government support, is truly admirable. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the central problems small-scale fishing communities face are identified. That way solutions can be generated, and governing bodies can move to protect their workers and provide relief wherever possible to fishing communities.

Images by Furkan Demir, and Quang Nguyen Vinh