Study: Seafood’s response to COVID-19 can pave the way for future resilience

Published on
March 8, 2021

The impacts of COVID-19 on the globalized seafood sector may offer crucial lessons for making the industry more resilient and capable of minimizing economic threats to food and nutrition security, seafood-based livelihoods, and local economies caused by global pandemics.

Published in Global Food Security, “Emerging COVID-19 impacts, responses, and lessons for building resilience in the seafood system” acknowledges the seafood sector is highly globalized, and that fish and other aquatic foods are among the world’s most-traded commodities, with an estimated value of more than USD 162 billion (EUR 134.7 billion) in 2018. 

But the study states that COVID-19’s disruption to the seafood sector, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, has exposed critical food system vulnerabilities – including power imbalances, disparities in nutrition and public health, and broader socio-economic inequalities. 

Disruptions in some regions are also magnified by existing stressors such as climate change, natural hazards, resource management, and political or economic instability, it said.  

In compiling the study, researchers mapped out the seafood sector’s reactions during the first five months of the pandemic, looking at impacts to demand, distribution, labor, and production in selected low- and high-income economies. To conduct their analysis, they combined country-level data on seafood production, trade, and sales with government reports, news articles, and social media posts.

“The seafood sector has faced many challenges during the pandemic. Our research can help the sector document the impacts as well as help the sector respond, learn, and become more resilient to future shocks,” Dave Love, an associate scientist at the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future's Seafood, Public Health, and Food Systems Project and lead author of the report, said. “I am encouraged to see some businesses, institutions, and groups showing signs of greater resilience in the face of the pandemic, and hope the lessons they learn can be shared and more widely adopted.” 

Love stressed the importance for countries to maintain food supply buffers; to cooperate to prevent export bans and hoarding; to strengthen local food systems; and to build diversity and connectivity within communities, companies, and countries. He said it is also crucial to watch for “maladaptation and unintended consequences” of responses to COVID-19, such as removing restrictions on fishing or increasing fishing quotas that could lead to overfishing, or power imbalances in trade that can undermine food security in low-income countries.

WorldFish Value Chain and Nutrition Senior Scientist Ben Belton, another of the report's authors, said that to rebuild toward a more resilient food system, researchers, policymakers, and businesses can use the current responses combined with lessons from past shocks.

“The paper proposes ways of learning from, anticipating and preparing for future impacts with a special focus on those most vulnerable,” Belton, also and an associate professor at Michigan State University, said.

To improve the seafood industry's resiliency, the researchers have proposed a series of key immediate- and longer-term actions.

Immediate priorities:  

  • Use survey tools to document and better understand COVID-19 impacts on people working at all levels in seafood value chains and seafood consumers in order to direct support to vulnerable actors in the seafood system;
  • Learn from actors in the value chain that have adapted to shifts in supply and demand of seafood so their strategies can be more widely adopted;
  • Improve open data and data-sharing platforms to facilitate the exchange of information about the societal impacts of COVID-19, to enable more rapid and coordinated responses to future shocks.

Longer-term priorities: 

  • Design future response strategies to support small-scale fish producers and traders, draw on lessons from social safety net programs in other food sectors, and experience with implementing the Human Right to Food;
  • Improve information systems to track fish prices and trade volumes typically consumed by different types of consumers to reduce wasted fish and enable value chains to respond to consumers' nutrition needs and demand preferences;
  • Focus resilience research on those parts of the aquaculture and fisheries system that supply populations most nutritionally dependent on seafood and those which, through employment, support food security of low-income value-chain actors;
  • Develop and apply an evaluation framework and resilience indicators for seafood value chains, that include social-economic, and environmental aspects, to identify and learn from resilience "hot-spots;" 
  • Study temporal effects of the shock on employment in the sector, on migration, on the adoption of technologies for production and processing, to better design future crisis-coping strategies and recovery efforts.
  • Understand how the fisheries and aquaculture sectors may or may not be different from other food sectors from a resilience perspective for COVID-19 and other large-scale disturbances.

“We are taking an approach to ‘build forward better,’ not just get back to normal,” Worldfish Research Chair for Equity and Justice in the Blue Economy Eddie Allison said. “We must think beyond the obvious need to react and cope and learn from the more successful coping strategies. Evaluating the success and failure of the temporary adjustments we saw at the start of the pandemic helps everyone in the sector think beyond the current crisis and start focusing on building longer-term resilience in seafood supply chains.”   

Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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