The fishing industry has suffered drastically, both in the UK and across Europe, as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. With restaurants closing for long periods since the UK lockdown began on 16th March, the market for fish has reduced significantly.
Even though restaurants have been open again since 4th July, their capacity has been reduced to ensure they adhere to social distancing regulations. According to a survey of the hospitality industry, customers haven’t yet embraced dining out in this climate dubbed the “new normal”.
Restaurants, pubs and bars in Britain have reported a downturn in trade compared with the same period last year. Those that reopened on 4th July have reported business is 40% down compared with July 2019. This is having an economic impact on all food producers, including fishermen.
© Helen Hotson / Adobe Stock
With a vastly reduced market, as Covid-19 has swept around the globe, a massive 80% of fish caught by UK vessels are exported, mostly to regions of Asia and Europe, so on top of the closure of restaurants across Britain, they have also lost their lucrative overseas market.
The fishing industry virtually collapsed overnight and prices in some areas dropped by 85%. This has been disastrous for inshore fishermen in particular, as those who are self-employed are now fighting for survival.
Cornwall is home to the UK’s largest fleet of small boats and has been especially vulnerable to the lockdown. Fishing ranks alongside tourism for Cornwall’s small communities as their main source of income.
Fishermen in smaller boats are reliant on selling fresh fish to restaurants both locally and overseas in France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Italy and South Korea. When the lockdown was announced, fish wholesalers in Cornwall lost around 80% of their customers overnight.
According to the Marine Management Organisation, the UK fishing industry began to struggle in April, during the first full month of the Covid-19 lockdown. The vessels’ catch was down by 35% on the same period in 2019, due to a drop in demand. The value of the catch was reduced by a massive 54%.
Smaller vessel-owners were hit hardest and suffered a fall of 69% in the value of their catch. In terms of individual species, shellfish suffered the greatest drop at 68%.
However, early post-lockdown reports suggest that the fishing industry seems to be weathering the storm. There are very few reports of fishing businesses closing permanently.
Rather than giving up, fishermen are adopting new techniques to maintain clients. Instead of relying on selling overseas and to restaurants, they are diversifying and selling through home delivery and collection points. With more people working from home, people don’t want to cook all the time, while many don’t want to dine out, due to a fear of catching coronavirus.
In Devon, local fishermen have found a regular source of custom in the shape of Sophie Horton, owner of a fishing lock-up on Salcombe seafront. She sells fish, lobsters and crabs bought from the local boats and has turned to direct delivery since lockdown began. She received a grant of more than £3,000 to buy new equipment and to advertise her services. People who didn’t use to buy before have now started to take advantage of the service. It has been so busy that the vessels can’t catch the fish quickly enough.
A grant scheme was set up jointly by Seafarers UK and The Fishmongers’ Company, with some funding provided by the Marine Management Organisation’s Domestic Seafood Supply Scheme. It has also covered spending on website design and has enabled businesses to learn about using social media accounts for extra publicity.
Investing in selling directly to customers could be a useful technique, should there be a second spike of Covid-19. With lockdown already being reintroduced in some parts of the country where cases have risen, organising deliveries of fresh fish to customers’ doorsteps could be a way of retaining income if more people are at home again.
Seafood Cornwall has set up the Fish to your Door campaign, attracting more than 1,200 customers to buy directly from local fisherman. Similarly, Mike Warner, a journalist and seafood consultant, has set up A Passion For Seafood, in Suffolk, to help local fishermen sell fresh fish directly to London fishmongers.
Most fish sold at supermarkets is bought in bulk from major suppliers and importers. The smaller fishing businesses don’t have the infrastructure to transport their catch from the coast to the supermarkets. This has led to many supermarkets closing their fresh fish counters, so there’s a gap in the market for local fishermen to sell directly to consumers.
If the fishing industry is to adopt a new technique of selling directly to people at home, publicising this service effectively is crucial. Fishing businesses of all sizes need to set up ecommerce sites, giving customers a visual display of products and prices.
The importance of this is apparent when you consider how many people search for food and takeaways online every day. This is a market that fishing businesses could tap into. In the UK, new online ordering technology has taken the food market into a new era.
The UK food delivery market in 2019 was worth around £8.5 billion and the biggest food delivery firm was Just Eat, processing more than 100 million orders in 12 months.
If the fishing market became more e-commerce savvy to keep up with the latest trends, adapting their selling techniques to differentiate from competitors, this could be a crucial source of income in the future.
In the same way, promoting themselves on social media to gain a following in a cost-effective manner can also expand their customer base.
Alan-David Mundy, a Channel Islands fisherman, used to export lobsters all over the world, until Covid-19 struck. Now, he uses Facebook to promote his services to the local market. He explains how local fishermen go out, catch the fish and then advertise their wares on Facebook, before they even get off the boat. Customers see on Facebook what’s for sale, give the fishermen a call and then go down to the marina to pick up their order – literally straight off the boat.
Alan combines his posts with simple tips on how to cook fresh seafood. The scheme has gained support from the local community and is helping to pay the vessel owners’ and crew members’ wages.
Small business people who aren’t internet and social media savvy may find it beneficial to seek professional help. While no-one knows what the future holds in terms of Covid-19, the fishing industry is fighting back and is determined to survive these challenging times by adapting to new methods of selling their wares.