Future of Fish: Lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic

There are valuable lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic for fisheries in Latin America, according to Future of Fish (FOF), an international nonprofit that focuses on sustainable practices principally with artisan fishers in the region.

Working with small-scale fishers to empower thriving coastal communities, ensure food security, and achieve long-term social impact while lowering the environmental footprint, Future of Fish embraces business-friendly approaches to solving problems. It was originally founded in 2008 as a project of the Packard Foundation, applying a solutions framework for complex problems. It now receives funding principally from other foundations, particularly the Walton Family Foundation.

According to Future of Fish Research Co-Director Marah Hardt, lacking the infrastructure to be able to handle to pandemic well, small-scale artisanal fisheries in Belize, Chile, and Peru have been hit hard and are facing the collapse of their traditional markets. Belize, for example, has exported seafood commodities such as spiny lobster and conch for decades, having exported USD 18.6 million (EUR 15.9 million) in 2018, supporting over 2,500 people who fish for a living and 15,000 subsidiary workers, according to research by UNCTAD. Belize particularly focuses on lobster exported to the U.S., but prices have dropped by half or more compared to last year.

“It’s devastating. We don’t know if the markets are going to truly recover – it will be awhile before restaurant industry recovers, and when they do, we don’t know if they will want to rely on imports. A lot of business models have collapsed and we don’t know if they will bounce back,” Hardt told SeafoodSource. “So we’re looking at a more diversified portfolio of markets for small-scale fishers. Most of them just work with one market and often with one buyer, which is very risky.”

As such, FOF is looking to create more diversity in terms of where the fishers are selling, considering different product forms and types, and working with local, regional, or national communities to build up domestic demand for local species that may have been considered either luxury or unattractive. Simple solutions included running campaigns to increase local demand and creating direct sales routes via Facebook.

“COVID has shown us how these narrow, single-focus, luxury, or export market business models are risky, and how you can create a diversified portfolio that allows artisanal fishers to have more control in the movement of their product and create more demand in-country. Maybe not at the top price, but if you can help in the efficiencies and cost savings, you can come out even in what the fisher can make and what the consumer can afford to buy,” she said.

One of FOF’s main areas of focus has been to address the fragmented, inefficient, and sometimes questionable middle of the supply chain. Hardt pointed to mahi as a great example in Peru, a country that catches roughly half of that species worldwide.

“People in the U.S. love and pay top dollar for mahi mahi fish tacos, but people won’t touch it in Peru. So we’re looking to shift that dynamic and have Peru, which is a huge gastronomic, foodie culture center, actually want a healthy, sustainably caught product,” she noted. “As a response to COVID in Peru, we have a campaign trying to create more knowledge on different types of species, recipes, and preparation while also highlighting artisanal fishers, saying this is core to Peruvian culture, they give us the food on our plates. Continue to support your fisher by buying local products during COVID and hopefully that will lead to higher local consumption post-pandemic.”

Another area for improvement is in the incorporation of more technology, such as the latest freezing techniques, which help to preserve the quality of the fish, but have yet to be incorporated in artisanal fisheries, Hardt said.

“It would allow them to serve high quality fish. It would open up huge new opportunities to stabilize supply – in storing fish for the off-season, balance out supply and demand, and making it more available in retail outlets, which in some places the purchase of fish has shifted for consumers,” she said.

Seafood also needs to be more integrated with the food system, Hardt added, pointing to “a totally false divide” between the people who work on food systems and innovation, and seafood, particularly wild catch.

“Aquaculture is often in the Department of Agriculture and fisheries in [the Department of] Fisheries. There are strange splits where people who work in developing logistics in cold chain for fisheries, won’t talk to people who are moving tomatoes, carrots, or other produce that can spoil. So there’s lots to be done there, too, in thinking about these as regional food solutions that can support small-scale producers and communities to have healthy food, to be able to make a decent living, and to not drain the resource.”

Hardt said the world is “on the cusp of a huge shift for NGOs like ourselves that care not just for more efficient supply chains for the environment, but ones that are supporting local food security and livelihood in the communities.”

“COVID has been in interesting force in this,” she said. “Around the world, unwinding the complex chains that seafood has adopted over the last 30 years – the reliance on all of these steps is one of the weaknesses. They aren’t necessary and that’s being shown to be a huge vulnerability. A lot of the challenges and weaknesses in the way seafood operates are because of export markets – the movement of fish away from where the resource is caught, to feed people living on the other side of the planet. So we’re looking at how to bolster more robust domestic, regional systems where you could have middle players, you need them to move the fish and build the logistics in, but you can do it in a more efficient, equitable way that points to food security and livelihood versus profits of multinational companies. That’s a big shift that’s happening now.”

Photo courtesy of Future of Fish


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