Life and livelihoods: the impact of COVID-19 on small-scale fishing communities

Small-scale fisheries are a vital source of employment, income and food for millions, especially in developing countries, but COVID-19 has affected the entire aquatic food system. On World Oceans Day, Cristina Pita looks at the drastic impact on the life and livelihoods for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Cristina Pita's picture
Insight by 
Cristina Pita
Cristina Pita is principal researcher in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
08 June 2021
Women selling fish

Women selling fish in Brandão market, Quelimane, Mozambique (Photo: copyright BioFish project)

The global restriction measures put in place to minimise the impacts of COVID-19 are having extensive and devastating economic and social impacts.

With fish and fish products among the most highly traded food products in the world, supply chains were immediately severely disrupted. The restrictive measures put in place were (and still are) particularly damaging for small-scale fisheries (SSF), both in developing and developed nations.

The SSF sector is crucial to food security, nutrition, sustainable livelihoods and wellbeing worldwide as it employs 90% of the people engaged in fisheries (around 36.7 million), with hundreds of millions more engaged indirectly, especially in the global South.

Evidence is emerging about the harmful impacts of the pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of communities dependent on SSF, and the strategies they adopted to cope with, and reduce its impact.

Evidence is also emerging of severe and widespread increased food insecurity and malnutrition affecting millions of vulnerable people, especially in rural settings and communities reliant on fish for animal protein and micronutrients.

Impacts on the livelihoods of fisherfolk

The pandemic affected SSF value chains, and the men and women dependent on SSF for their livelihoods, in numerous ways: through loss of international markets; lack of tourists and usual local buyers; issues around COVID-safe fishing practices, transportation and storage; and increased production costs leading to rising prices, to name just a few.

SSF are mostly dependent on domestic markets, but an increasing amount of small-scale catch (especially high-end products) enters regional and global markets. Many small-scale fishers in developed nations provide domestic markets with fresh, high-quality seafood, and some of their counterparts in developing countries are dependent on exports to the largest seafood markets worldwide (European Union, United States, China), or dependent on the tourism sector.

In pre-pandemic times, the food services and hospitality sectors were important commercial channels for these seafood products. The mandatory closure (and slow reopening) of these sectors in the European Union and the United States resulted in a crash in demand with knock-on economic impacts.

Coastal economies heavily dependent on tourism have been hit hard, even those that did well in containing the spread of the virus, such as some Caribbean destinations. China’s bans on imports of seafood, due to fears of contamination, has further impact the sector.

The perishable nature of fisheries products requires capital-intensive cold chains and/or processing methods to extend storage life (such as drying and salting). In developed countries, many small-scale fishers sell fresh fish, and, for instance, these sales have decreased by 30% in France, Italy, and Spain.

In many developing countries, value chains for dried small fish are important, and most lie in the informal sector dominated by rural women, who were highly affected by restrictions on movement. For instance, in Nigeria, women fish vendors struggle to buy (due to the small quantity landed and high price) and sell (due to restrictions in movement), which results in significant income losses.

Most fisheries worldwide suffered a reduction in fishing activity even after the partial reopening of the global economy during the summer of 2020. Social distancing makes it difficult to keep landing and auction sites fully operational, and restricted space onboard vessels is an added health risk.

Impacts on food security and nutrition

In many parts of the developing world, the impact of the pandemic on buying habits is proving to be long-lasting, due to the increased price of fish and decreased buying power of consumers.

This is confirmed by a preliminary analysis of a consumer survey under way in northern Mozambique (by the BioFish project; unpublished data) in which almost half of consumers reported that COVID-19 has impacted on their fish purchase, due to lack of availability, increased fish prices and decreased purchasing power.

This poses risks to food security as many households have had to cut down on the quantity and quality of their food consumption. This could further exacerbate undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency for the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Response by governments and those engaged in the small-scale fisheries value chains

Most governments around the globe responded immediately to the pandemic by using disaster relief and social protection measures to minimise the impacts of COVID-19 for people involved in fisheries.

Efforts included extending to the sector lump sums and/or periodic cash transfers, solidarity funds, social insurance (such as sick leave, unemployment benefits), economic stimulus and grant programmes, and in some cases employing measures specifically for the fisheries sector (such as using support mechanisms normally reserved for the closed season).

However, state aid remains low and in many instances is inadequate for those working in SSF, who are mostly informal workers, not registered for social security and without recognised labour rights. Women working in pre- and post-harvest are particularly vulnerable, and this is especially critical as they represent 47% of the total SSF workforce (PDF).

Efforts by national and local governments, social organisations and small-scale fishers themselves to bolster local food networks have also been observed, with many reporting increases in local sales initiatives around the globe (such as direct sale schemes, internet selling, door-to-door deliveries and community- supported fisheries).

Ways forward

The importance of SSF value chains makes their revitalisation essential in the context of COVID-19 recovery efforts. Rapid and decisive action must be taken to ensure the economic viability and resilience of coastal fishing communities in an equitable, inclusive and socially-just way, and without compromising the resources they depend upon.

Governments, development organisations, NGOs, the SSF sector and scientists need to come together to:

  • Strengthen local aquatic food systems and push for a long-term shift in distribution channels: shortening supply chains has helped prevent food shortages and loss of livelihoods. Direct fish marketing, online selling and home delivery services have developed at an incredible speed, opening the door to a long-lasting trend of ecommerce.

    There is the need to help small-scale fishers and their organisations to transform and adapt to local markets, including working with processors to adjust supply, promote new low-cost technologies to get fish delivered directly to consumers, link fishing centres with nearby communities, capacity build and, importantly, bridge the digital divide.
  • Implement adequate social protection measures: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has pointed out that social protection is critical to saving both lives and livelihoods, and is long overdue. Access to social protection is a fundamental human right, critical for reducing poverty and stimulating economic activity, as well as helping to build resilience to future shocks.

    Social protection can encourage more sustainable resource use in SSF, with long-term social, economic, and ecological benefits.
  • Accelerate progress toward UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Increasing numbers of people experiencing extreme food insecurity are rapidly undermining progress towards achieving the SDGs. The World Bank predicts that as many as 151 million people will fall into extreme poverty by 2021 as a result of the global recession caused by COVID-19.

    Action is needed now to avoid a further increase in poverty and food insecurity for the millions living in already distressed fishing communities.