The seafood industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with exports dropping by up to 43 percent in 2020 compared to last year, according to research led by the University of Vermont. The study is the largest of its kind to investigate the impacts of the coronavirus on U.S. fisheries.
The researchers found that monthly imports declined by up to 37 percent, and catches dropped by as much as 40 percent during the worst months. The losses will continue, and some fisheries may not survive without government aid.
“Seafood has been hit harder than many other industries because many fisheries rely heavily on restaurant buyers, which dried up when the necessary health protocols kicked in,” said study lead author Easton White. “Restaurants represent about 65 percent of U.S. seafood spending, normally.”
More than one million U.S. seafood workers regularly produce over $4 billion in annual exports. In January of 2020, the demand for American seafood imports plummeted as the first lockdowns were issued in China. Beginning in March, traffic at seafood markets decreased by 30 percent, while web searches for U.S. seafood restaurants declined by more than half.
“Seafood is a seasonal business,” said White. “If you have a March to June season, and can’t get funds until next year, you might have to quit. Support from policymakers will decide which producers can survive.”
According to the researchers, aid should target regions where fisheries make up a disproportionate share of the economy, including Maine, Alaska, Louisiana, and Washington, as well as tribal fisheries.
“Foreign markets play an important role in the U.S. seafood sector, but dependence on exports leaves portions of the sector vulnerable to these global shocks,” said study co-author Jessica Gephart. “Diversifying the sector by building local networks and consumer education campaigns can help build resilience to future shocks.”
White said some seafood producers have found ways to adapt. Community supported fisheries programs are increasing, with some websites providing new methods for consumers to buy fresh seafood that would normally be sold to restaurants or at markets.
“Most people who cook at home are not likely looking to cook fresh monkfish from Maine for themselves or their family, so the types of species being consumed is changing,” said study co-author Halley Froehlich.
These changes will persist along with the pandemic. In the meantime, fisheries will look for ways to sell more of their seafood domestically.
The Vermont team recognized the urgent need to measure the pandemic’s impact on fisheries in order for them to be given government support, but analyzing such a large amount of data usually takes years to complete.
“The data is collected daily or weekly, but it’s often handwritten in a fisher’s logbook.” explained White. “The info needs to be processed and turned into a database and verified before researchers and government leaders get the big picture.”
The researchers used pioneering methods to quickly estimate the pandemic’s impacts on fisheries. In September, preliminary data from the study was sent to Congress.
The research is published in the journal Fish & Fisheries.