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Fish chain interrupted: How COVID-19 affects markets and trades 

What can news stories from around the world tell us about the effects of COVID-19 on

small-scale fishers' access to markets?

by Augustina Meh Ndum, Bruna Brito, Marzana Monefa, Paula Struk Jaia, Ruyel Miah, Mirella Leis and Vanessa Eyng

Combined with other difficulties in marketing, transportation, and trading especially for those depending on export markets, the threats to livelihoods and the food supply chain are real.

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The small town of Trinity in Newfoundland ©Mirella Leis

More news about how COVID-19 disrupts the fishing way of life keep emerging. Various responses across the globe have also been discussed, with some governments considering fisheries as an essential service and allowing fishers to continue fishing. In other places, fishing has been suspended. Meanwhile, markets and fish trades are being affected in the most varied ways, including complete shutdown in some cases due to lack of fish or health and safety concerns. 


Despite being the main drivers of the global food chain, small-scale fishers or farmers usually find themselves in a marginalized and disadvantaged position. The physical isolation measures and lockdown restrictions have further exacerbated their situation, forcing them either to halt or alter their fishing operations. Combined with other difficulties in marketing, transportation, and trading especially for those depending on export markets, the threats to livelihoods and the food supply chain are real. While it is possible for some fishers to sell fish to local restaurants or retail markets, this is not an option to all. Some governments are providing financial relief and other kinds of support to seafood industries, but there are few initiatives specifically aimed at the small-scale fisheries sector. Such discrepancy raises questions of accountability, just distribution and transparency. As further illustrated, the situation is different from one place to the next; so are the responses and the lessons.

In Brazil and other countries in South America, the number of coronavirus cases is fast-increasing, and governments continue to implement measures to restrict physical contact and prevent the spread of the disease. Small-scale fisheries have been trying to approach governments to let them return to their fishing activities. Different governments and organizations across South America are helping in one way or another. In Peru, companies have extended loans to fishing industry employees and there was an agreement developed by the Health Ministry to extend coverage to the children who live in areas of fishing activity. In Chile, Sernapesca (Chile’s National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service) is providing help to around 200 Chilean fishers through WhatsApp with updates and measures that the Ministry of Economics has applied.


In Tamandare, a small city in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil, the economy is heavily dependent on tourism and fisheries, both of which are deeply affected by the pandemic. After the adoption of physical distancing measures, all bars, restaurants and hotels – the main customers of local fish - were closed down. To guarantee the livelihood of its associates, the Colonia de Pescadores Z5 (a Fishers’ Association) launched a direct online sale through the online application WhatsApp, targeting residents of the city. The initiative has been very successful, and all the fish stocked in freezers were sold. 

The restrictions and closure of traditional markets is also taking place in most African countries. Women in African artisanal fisheries are particularly affected as they earn their living on a day-by-day basis. Fishers across the continent are being impacted differently, depending on their fishing trade system. For instance, in Kenya most of the fish is imported from China. But due to the pandemic and China’s lockdown, “the supply at the Chinese importers has gone down, and many of my customers were also scared of the Chinese fish, thinking they would contract the virus”, said a fish trader. This has led to a boost in the sale of fish caught by Kenya’s fishers as they can now sell their fish at a good price. On the other hand, in South Africa, the small-scale fishers at Steenberg's Cove were instructed by South African authorities to stop harvesting West Coast rock lobster. This has greatly affected fishers and the people in these communities, leaving them with no income and the inability to take care of their families. As a way to reduce the impact of this crisis, the South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has extended the fishing season for three more months. Artisanal fishing professional organisation (CAOPA) has also taken action by providing information about the necessary hygiene and protective measures fish workers must follow. COAPA also supports the provision of preventive sanitary kits for people in artisanal fisheries in different African countries.

In another part of the world, in Bangladesh, a large portion of seafood products is usually destined for international markets. China, for example, imports high quantities of species such as Hilsa fish or Mud crab during the Chinese New Year and this high demand normally brings extra income for local fishers. The lockdown of China during its New Year’s celebrations meant that Bangladeshi fishers had to sell those valuable goods to domestic markets at lower prices. Local lockdown restrictions in Bangladesh brought further challenges, with fishers having difficulties in accessing local markets. In some regions, like in the haor areas of Sylhet, both the fishers and buyers have had limited access to markets as all the districts of Sylhet division under lockdown.

In Canada, fishing communities are worried about the economic impact of closing the fishery and whether the fish-workers would qualify for government aid. The delay in the opening season seems to be what most fishers wanted when surveyed over the past few weeks and a request was made to delay the season until May 15th. With uncertainty around how much fish buyers will actually purchase, at what price, how much fish plants can process, and the state of the market, it is critical that fishers know if some financial aid will be available. For many fishers, the current situation with the unknown and the uncertainty is simply intolerable. 

Restaurant closures and a ban on cruise ships in some provinces of Canada, especially in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, along with the international markets shutdown, have minimized the market for snow crab and lobster fishery. Sales of live lobster from Canada to China in the first 10 months of 2019 were $384 million, with most of the lobster coming from Nova Scotia. With COVID-19, the sales for this year will be drastically reduced. In response, some fishers in Nova Scotia decided to sell lobster locally, as the Asian markets have been closed due to pandemic. The fishers started advertising via Facebook and Instagram to sell live lobster to the local consumer, offering to maintain social distancing through ‘contactless’ delivery. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the fishers agreed to sell their harvested fish to local consumer and grocery shops. Moreover, the fishers’ union (FFAW) asked the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to waive all 2020 license fees and extend Employment Insurance for the harvesters. As of 29th of April 2020, the government of Canada has declared a 62.5 million-dollar monetary support for Canada’s fish and seafood sector. This support will be helpful mainly for seafood processing, while the support for harvesters is still unclear.

As highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), fisheries, most of them small-scale, are a key sector to guarantee food security through these times of quarantine measures. Fishing is not a single act but a dynamic system that incorporates harvesting, processing, transport and retail marketing. Each link of the chain is important and needs to be preserved, supported and encouraged. It requires that the governments and organizations from around the world implement proper strategies and support during and after the pandemic. Design and implementation of these strategies will define the state of which small-scale fisheries will come out from this turbulent time.


Written by Augustina Meh Ndum, Bruna Brito, Marzana Monefa, Paula Struk Jaia, Ruyel Miah, Mirella Leis and Vanessa Eyng. 

All contributors are Memorial University international students who have been hired as part of the COVID-19 Job Initiative, a joint effort between OFI Module I, Too Big To Ignore, and the Nippon Foundation Nereus Program. Vanessa Eyng and Mirella Leis have supervised the group of students throughout the writing process.

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