Study provides first comprehensive look at COVID’s impact on US seafood industry

A new study published Monday, 23 November by a group of academic researchers provides a first attempt at a comprehensive review of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the U.S. seafood industry.

The study, “Early effects of COVID‐19 on U.S. fisheries and seafood consumption,” published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, found in the first six months of 2020, U.S. seafood exports dropped 20 percent and imports fell 6 percent compared to the same period last year. Drilling down, the research team – led by University of Vermont Professor Easton White – found widely disparate effects in individual regions across the U.S. and between different species and types of seafood. Live, fresh, and chilled imports dropped 37 percent and exports fell between 29 and 43 percent between February and April 2020. At the height of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, catches dropped up to 40 percent across the U.S.

"A big global catastrophe like this tends to reveal the vulnerability of any industry, and one of the really key things we found is that the pandemic has revealed longstanding stress points in the seafood industry,” White told SeafoodSource. “Issues like its heavy reliance on imports and exports – international trade – and its dependence on foodservice really came through in our study.”

A lack of data proved problematic for putting together enough information to get a good overall picture of industry outcomes in the past year, and White said that exposed another weak point for the seafood industry. He recommended more fisheries publish daily or weekly landings data, and that the federal government speed up its release of monthly trade data, in order to enable a quicker study of how the industry is affected by crises like the coronavirus and to allow federal and state governments to understand how to best target aid to sectors in the greatest need of it.

“As scientists, we want to answer these questions, but if we don’t have data, we can’t,” White said.

As a workaround, White and his colleagues compiled all available fisheries landings and foreign trade data and combined it with a dataset comprised of media reporting on how COVID-19 affected different aspects of the U.S. seafood industry. They also used GPS tracking provided by SafeGraph, which collects foot traffic data using cell phones, and studied web searches to determine how COVID-19 had altered the intersectionality of seafood and foodservice.

They found consumer demand for seafood from restaurants dropped by as much as 70 percent during the initial lockdowns nationally in April, with recovery varying by state. On the flipside, orders of seafood purchased through delivery and takeout services increased by 270 percent. Seafood markets saw a decrease in traffic of up to 30 percent in 2020, though the impact has varied across the country as a result of state-level differences in the severity of coronavirus outbreaks, social distancing restrictions, and state-level reopening strategies.

While traditional avenues to bring seafood to consumers tightened or were closed off entirely, White said both suppliers and consumers adapted to the situation, realigning seafood supply chains in the process.

“We saw an increase in alternative modes of seafood delivery with a pivot by a lot of small-scale fishers to sell directly to consumers and doing more local community-supported fisheries. And on the consumer side, more people were doing seafood recipe searches online and seafood take-out and delivery searches doubled and tripled,” White said. “It will be really interesting to see if those [trends] stick around longer-term.”

While some fisheries were able to adapt to the changes brought on by the coronavirus crisis, many others were not. The study compared Alaska’s halibut and sablefish fisheries and found that while landings of halibut decreased 40 percent prior to June, catches of sablefish were in line with previous years. White accounted for this discrepancy by looking that the form the products are sold in: Halibut is mostly sold fresh, while nearly all sablefish is sold frozen.

“Therefore, although sablefish is typically sold in the export market, sablefish demand should be more reliable for processors given increased demand for frozen goods generally during the pandemic,” the study said, noting that other products usually sold frozen also experienced increases in domestic demand, most notably Alaska pollock and haddock. Species typically sold fresh or live, such as lobster and monkfish, fared poorly over the summer as overseas demand dried up and the logistics of transporting seafood abroad became more difficult. White said his group plans on studying the long-term impacts on seafood pricing as a result of this dichotomy.

Short-term, White said he expects seafood markets to return to more typical trading levels after a COVID-19 vaccine is distributed, but he said he would also like to study what, if any, long-term shifts take place in supply chains as a result of the crisis.

“I’m interested to see whether consumers move beyond their clear preference for shrimp, salmon, cod, and tuna – whether we see an uptick in sales of different products they wouldn’t have normally thought about cooking at home,” he said.

Long-term, White said he’s concerned that more fisheries will struggle as the immediate impacts of the economic catastrophe take their toll.

“There were a lot of big, really dire projections for the industry’s future, and I’m not sure if those predictions of how bad it would be have come to fruition yet, or if it may take more time. A lot of fisheries are highly seasonal, and fishermen may have been hit hard during this season, so it will be interesting to see whether they can make it to the next season or not. There may be some kind of delay as to whether people drop out of their fishery,” he said.

White is also interested in studying whether aid directed to the seafood industry, such as the CARES Act, had or will have a significant impact in preventing the kind of seismic blow to the industry that it was created to cushion.

“The USD 300 million [EUR 252 million] from the CARES Act, compared to how much money the seafood industry brings in annually, is not as much as you would expect to accomplish that task,” he said.

White said he hoped his group’s research will be used if any additional federal funding source is created by the federal government for the seafood industry.

“A big thing we saw that we would probably like to see changed in the future is that the distribution of that money was really delayed,” he said. “It took a long time to get that money out fishers and processors. Any new bill that gets passed, we would like to see that timeframe shortened, as we know getting aid out there quickly is important.”

He said more data and research could help the government spend its money more wisely, targeting the people and sectors who need the most help.

“In this pandemic, we saw the entire industry and country was not hit equally. States like Alaska or Maine, where fishing is a big part of the economy, were hit harder by COVID,” he said.

Declaring seafood workers essential could be vital in states like these, he said – which could result in the government prioritizing seafood workers for the COVID-19 vaccine that will likely be distributed next year.

“Public policy decisions have consequences,” he said. “A lot of good things were included in the Trump administration's recent executive order focused on U.S. seafood, and we’ll see with [President-Elect Joe] Biden coming in whether and how can those policies and actions can be made better.”

Photo courtesy of Salty View/Shutterstock


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