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COVID-19 Has Wide-Ranging Impacts on the Global Seafood Sector

New research measures the scope of disruption and identifies opportunities to build resilience

Feb 16, 2021

COVID-19 Has Wide-Ranging Impacts on the Global Seafood Sector

Publication  |  Webinar

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns greatly increased the vulnerability of groups working in and dependent on the seafood sector, according to new research led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Health Engineering.

“The seafood sector is an important source of employment and nutrition, particularly in low-income countries. Additionally, seafood is a highly traded commodity with shocks to seafood production, distribution, labor, and supply felt all over the world,” said Dave Love, lead author of the study and Associate Scientist of CLF’s Seafood, Public Health & Food Systems Project. “With this research, we wanted to better understand how the seafood sector has fared in the first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic and explore what types of coping or adaptive responses were being used in low, middle, and high-income countries.”

To conduct their analysis, the authors combined country-level data on seafood production, trade, and sales with government reports, news articles, and Twitter posts related to seafood and COVID-19. The authors first characterized the nature of COVID-19 disruptions in the seafood sector and then identified how the seafood sector has absorbed and reacted to COVID-19 stressors within a food system resilience “action cycle” framework. Finally, the authors used current and past examples of shocks to identify lessons for building resilience in the seafood sector.

Impacts of COVID-19 on the seafood sector were found to be wide ranging and occurred at many different points in the supply chain. Lockdowns disrupted seafood demand, followed by impacts to production, labor and livelihoods, and distribution. These impacts sometimes occurred simultaneously, while others showed cascading, networked, or lagged impacts.

Initial responses by the seafood sector to COVID-19 were reactive. For example, governments sought to maintain core functions in the seafood sector by assigning “essential worker” status to fishworkers to maintain the food supply, along with some protections for workers, and social protections to lessen the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic. Some companies, countries, and products in the large-scale commercial sector showed initial signs of greater resilience, for example by redistributing products around the globe to avoid COVID-19 hot-spots. The small-scale sector had their own sets of responses, such as mobilizing fishworker networks, documenting impacts, advocating for support, and shifting to domestic and direct markets.

“There are many challenges facing the seafood sector while the pandemic continues to spread. We hope our research can help inform both short-term and longer-term responses, as well as help guide the learning process to become more resilient to future shocks,” said Love.

Some of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic that researchers say should be considered to build resilience in the seafood sector include 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. 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.

“Understanding and addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the seafood sector requires a great breadth of information, perspective and expertise. A core strength of this study is that it reflects the collective insights of an interdisciplinary and geographically diverse team of researchers and practitioners from multiple academic institutions, government agencies, international organizations, and the private sector,” said Shawn McKenzie, CLF Deputy Director. “This work demonstrates the value of collaborative research partnerships in seeking to better understand and address complex and pressing challenges of our food systems.”

Emerging COVID-19 impacts, responses, and lessons for building resilience in the seafood system” was written by David Love, Edward H. Allison, Frank Asche, Ben Belton, Richard Cottrell, Halley Froehlich, Jessica Gephart, Christina C. Hicks, David C. Little, Elizabeth M. Nussbaumer, Patricia da Silva, Florence Poulain, Angel Rubio, Joshua Stoll, Michael F. Tlusty, Andrew L. Thorne-Lyman, Max Troell, and Wenbo Zhang and published in Global Food Security.