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High stakes: Fishers health and safety during COVID-19 times 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the health and safety of fishers and their communities at sea and on land?

by Dhruv Kapadia, Elaheh Vaziri, Marzana Monefa, Nicko Johnson, Paula Struk Jaia, Mirella Leis and Vanessa Eyng

The challenges of the working environment are further exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic, which brings about changes in regulations based on physical distancing recommendations, as well as changes to the fishing season, which is in many cases postponed indefinitely. 

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Small-scale fishing boat in Newfoundland, Canada ©Mirella Leis

Safety at sea has always been a concern for fishers and their families. Aboard a vessel, fishers are exposed to unpredictable and sometimes hostile ocean conditions; they work on unstable grounds and with heavy equipment. They do all this while fatigued from prolonged work hours, and being exposed to loud noise, which can lead to hearing loss. According to the International Labour Organization, fishing and other related activities claim the lives of about 24 thousand workers every year worldwide.


The challenges of the working environment are further exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic, which brings about changes in regulations based on physical distancing recommendations, as well as changes to the fishing season, which is in many cases postponed indefinitely. What does this mean to fish harvesters and their health and safety at sea? How will the effects of operational health and safety measures be reflected in markets and in fishing communities? 


In Latin America, artisanal, small-scale fisheries provide income to about 1.8 million families, who are unable to continue with ’business as usual’ amidst the COVID-19 economic crisis. Alarmed by this situation, fishers are demanding appropriate support through their organizations. In Chile, for instance, the Federación de Pescadores Artesanales de la Región del Biobío (Ferepa), a national federation of artisanal fishers, approached the government for help, emphasizing how fishers are at high risk to contract respiratory diseases, due to the complex and precarious nature of their work.


Across Latin America and the Caribbean, millions of artisanal fishers are still fishing, continuing to play a crucial role for the local and national food systems. To ensure they can continue to do so, it is essential to implement operational and safety regulations. In response, on April 3rd in Santiago de Chile, 26 Latin American and Caribbean countries came to an agreement for a coordinated support for the regular functioning of the food system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 26 countries committed to act in coordination, by exchanging information and good practices. These include providing technical and financial assistance to small-scale fishers, implementing emergency programs to prevent food losses and waste, and introducing and promoting the use of online platforms and applications to make sure there is physical distancing between producers and buyers.


On a much smaller scale, the fishing village in Wilayat of Duqm is one of the essential fishery harbours in Oman. Around 200 fishers frequent the village, established in 2012 by the government to provide a housing complex for fishers from outside the Central Governorate. As a result of COVID-19, "the Fish Resources Department in Al Wusta Governorate has closed this village to limit the gathering of fishermen in one location to ensure their safety." The administration was also preventing non-fishers from entering fishing ports and prohibiting excursion boats. As a result of this decision, some of the fishers lost not only their job but their homes too. To counter this issue, the Fish Resources Department is now coordinating between fishers and fish companies to facilitate the marketing of fish products and ensure their distribution in marketing outlets in various governorates of the sultanate.


The safety of the fishing activity is also a concern in India. Chandrasekhar Shriyan, a traditional fisherman from Guddekopla, said that “state government allowed us to go in a traditional non-motorised boat with maximum five persons per boat. But we were worried about our safety and health.” Shriyan is a member of Dakshin Kannada Karavali Moola Meenugarara Sangha (South Karnataka Coastal Original Fishermen Union) that has around 1,200 members; the members have decided to impose restrictions on themselves and not go out in the sea.

In North America, fishers are considered essential workers; thus the state, tribes, municipalities and numerous non-governmental support organizations have drafted mandatory and recommended operational health and safety procedures to guide crew members’ operations. For instance, the State of Alaska issued the COVID-19 Health Mandate 017, which includes standardized protective measures to be followed by all independent commercial fishing vessels operating within Alaskan waters and ports to ensure a safe, productive fishing season, while protecting communities from the spread of COVID-19. The mandate includes procedures relating to self-quarantine, screening of crew members, off-loading catch, etc. Organizations such as Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and United Fishermen of Alaska have provided additional information regarding health and safety of crew members and checklists to help fishers comply with relevant mandates.


These guidelines and mandate will allow for a continued operation within the Alaskan fishing industry, which will ultimately reduce the financial impact of COVID-19. The guidelines will also help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in more rural areas of Alaska. However, the requirements such as the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for incoming seasonal workers, which was established out of a growing concern from locals regarding the health risk, will undoubtedly slow down operations within the industry. In addition, the strict requirements surrounding conduct of crew members at sea and when off-loading catch may result in material loss of time. Notwithstanding, with the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 and the international thrust to slow the spread of the virus, the positive impacts of these measures are expected to outweigh the inconveniences.


In Canada, fishing has been not only an important economic sector, but it is also of cultural significance for many coastal communities. With COVID-19, fish harvesters and processors are concerned about going ahead with the fishing season due to health and safety concerns, as it is difficult to follow the guidelines of health experts. In addition to their fear about who will buy their fish, fishers are worried about spreading the virus to their families and communities. COVID-19 has literally created a risky environment for fish harvesters to work in, as they work closely together, share food, sleeping accommodations and washrooms. In addition, many fish harvesters are older, which puts them at a higher risk of health complications if they get infected.


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many changes across Canada in how fishing is operated. Nowadays, anyone entering the fish-plant facility must have their temperature checked daily and there are also new plastic barriers in place. In Nunavut, the Pangnirtung Fisheries plant on Baffin Island is suspended but staff is still being paid. Baffin fisheries are trying out small test fishing but are not allowed to sell outside the community. In Quebec, an influx of a hundred or more fishers during the fishing season in one little confined marina makes it practically impossible to maintain physical distancing, risking the lives of workers and residents. Hence, organizations involved in fisheries took surveys of all fisheries and asked for a relief from the Canadian government for processors, so they can purchase personal protective equipment for workers, adapt to health protocols and support other social distancing measures. In response, the government announced a funding of 62.5 Million for seafood processors. The funds will go toward purchasing personal protective equipment for workers and outfitting facilities with new refrigeration and storage capacity.


What these stories show is that fishers and fish processors, like other essential workers, need proper support to continue doing their work in a safe way. It is hard to imagine what it is like to use a face mask in the middle of the ocean or how to keep a two-meter distance on a vessel that is only 20 meters long. These are just some of the challenges for putting in place safety measures on vessels. As Manuel Haro, a fisherman from Spain, said in an interview for El País "the shipowner, of course, has to assess the risk, but no matter how much protection there is, it is always high. You have to feed people, but if you risk your health and it costs you money, you have to think about it. Hopefully this will change soon.”


Written by Dhruv Kapadia, Elaheh Vaziri, Marzana Monefa, Nicko Johnson, Paula Struk Jaia, 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. Mirella Leis and Vanessa Eyng have supervised the group of students throughout the writing process.

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