- Initially, all operators were caught unaware by the sudden closures of HoReCa Small operators were among the first victims of the economic shocks.
- More than lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions, it was the contraction of demand that had the stronger impact on labour.
- Estimates for aquaculture point to a 17 % reduction in sales volume and an 18 % reduction in total income, with a harsh impact on the shellfish segment.
- Extra-EU imports decreased by 1 % in volume and 7 % in value
- There was an increase in household consumption, but it did not offset the decrease in out-of-home consumption.
- Direct sales, online sales and home deliveries have gained fresh impetus.
Fisheries and aquaculture were among the food sectors most immediately impacted by COVID-19. Initially, most countries tried to ensure health and safety, by closing ports, quarantining foreign vessels, closing open-air fish markets, disinfecting ports and fishing boats, providing masks for workers and raising awareness about sanitary measures. At the same time, several measures were taken to ensure social protection and guarantee decent working conditions for fishers and fish farmers. Other measures were taken to ensure the continuity of food supply, such as expanding home deliveries and direct sales, and supporting national and local production through consumer awareness campaigns.
Lockdown measures disrupted employment in several ways, including:
- reducing fishing activities strongly impacted by sanitary measures;
- limiting access to labour for seafood businesses strictly dependent on migrant workers, due to temporary border closure;
- squeezing demand, as a consequence of the closure of restaurants, cafés and hotels, which put a halt on the activity of many fishing fleets and production plants;
- increasing job instability, due to job cuts from companies suffering from higher operational costs.
Many of these impacts were short-lived, as rules were changed and guidelines put in place to allow fishers and fish farmers to return to work. The longer-lasting effects to workers were a result of changes in demand and price volatility for fisheries and aquaculture products. Hence, while lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions created some labour disruptions, it is the contraction of demand that seems to have had the stronger impact on labour.
The impact of COVID-19 on fisheries and aquaculture
All operators were caught unaware by the sudden closures of HoReCa channels. Small operators were among the first victims of the economic shocks. Initially, small-scale fisheries that predominantly sell fresh fish were particularly affected, due to limited stock capacity, lack of freezing capacity, and liquidity constraints.
Fisheries targeting high-value species or selling to the HoReCa sector suffered the most; on the other hand, fisheries mostly targeting the retail segment barely reported any variation. After just a few weeks from the first outbreak(s), the EU fishing activity showed a slight recovery, though with mixed effects on prices. Fisheries previously selling to HoReCA turned to selling to retail.
Unlike fisheries, aquaculture is an industrial activity, which means that a farmer can exert some control on supply (and on prices). Initially many farmers who had previously sold to HoReCa decided to keep growing their produce or to stock it, in order to avoid a plunge in prices. When they realised that demand would not recover any time soon, they had to find alternative market channels. Some initial estimates point to a 17 % reduction in sales volume and an 18 % reduction in total income, with a particularly harsh impact on the shellfish segment.
 See: Nielsen R. et al., 2021, The EU Aquaculture Sector – Economic report 2020 (STECF-20-12), Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, pp. 306-307, https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/1939335e-a893-11eb-9585-01aa75ed71a1/language-en.
The impact of COVID-19 on imports
In 2020, extra-EU imports amounted to 6.15 billion tonnes and EUR 24.21 billion; only a minute decrease of 1 % in volume and 7 % in value compared with the 2017-2019 average. However, there was a sharp drop in April 2020, which was the peak of the first wave, when volumes and values decreased by 15 % and 22 %, respectively, from the same period in the last three years.
The impact of COVID-19 on consumption
Even though food retail shops remained operational everywhere, panic hoarding of foodstuffs, mainly observed in the early phases of national lockdowns, accompanied by a temporary reduced supply of fresh products, led consumers to stock up on non-perishable foods, thus increasing sales of prepacked, frozen or canned fish.
Compared with 2019 the sales of unprocessed fisheries and aquaculture products decreased in 2020 by 12 % in France, 9 % in Spain, 5 % in Italy and 3 % in Germany. However retail sales actually increased, while sales through foodservice and institutional channels decreased. As for processed fish products, anecdotal evidence from retailers suggests a stable and strong demand for processed products, especially for canned, frozen and smoked fish.
The increase in household consumption did not offset the decrease in out-of-home consumption, possibly because some products are inherently difficult to cook at home, so consumers preferred easier alternatives to fish.
The vast majority of disruptions of COVID-19 on the sector took place at the onset of the pandemic. The entire supply chain experienced a marked recovery through the second half of 2020, at least in terms of volumes produced or traded. However, with lower prices and higher transaction costs, the profitability of the entire value chain decreased, with the notable exception of retail.
The “better-than-expected” response of the sector was the product of operators’ resilience, as well as of EU and national governments enacting mitigation measures. Preliminary data indicate that in 2020, the EU Member States spent more than EUR 78 million from their EMFF budget for a total of 5 811 COVID-19-related operations.
Finally, COVID-19 has posed many a challenge to the sector, but it has also opened new opportunities. Direct sales, online sales and home deliveries have gained fresh impetus, and, even though old habits might creep in again at the end of the pandemic, the business professionals interviewed for this study believe that COVID-19 brought in a structural change.
 To be noted that that figures do not include data from Denmark, Finland, Malta, Italy, Slovenia and Romania. Austria, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia are not included either, but they are landlocked. Luxembourg is not a recipient of EMFF funds.
To strengthen the resilience of the sector in view of future shocks, we recommend to:
- Designate fishers, farmers, processors and distribution workers as essential.
- Establish exceptions to travel restrictions for temporary migrant workers and the enterprises that support the sector.
- Explore the possibility of banking fishing quotas from one year to the next. To make up for lower catches in a given year, quotas could be exchanged from one year to another. The exact quota that can be “banked” should be defined based on sound scientific advice.
- Increase transparency with a system that gives auctions and buyers a picture of the catch in terms of its volume and species in advance of its landing in a port;
- Optimise the cash flow of transfers of support measures so to account for natural variations in production cycles due to, for example, seasonality;
- Re-introduce a storage aid mechanism;
- Implement promotional campaigns to support local fisheries and aquaculture products;
- Strengthen databases and market intelligence