A fine kettle of fish: how COVID-19 is impacting fishing enthusiasts, industry

All areas of life are affected by the pandemic, even some most of us don’t really give that much thought to on a regular basis — like fishing.

Image credits: Greysen Johnson.

I’m not personally invested in fishing. I only tried it once and all I caught was a fierce sunburn.

But I do find it interesting that while we discuss measures taken or to be taken in social life, commercial areas, and industry on a daily basis, we tend to miss on a lot happening behind the curtain in niche areas. Fishing is one such arena.

Quarantines in mysterious places

First off, let’s start with fishing for sport.

According to The Guardian, “anglers, game shooting enthusiasts and bowls clubs are increasing the pressure for the lockdown to be eased for their sports,” arguing that the time is right for restrictions on their favorite pastimes to be lifted.

According to Onthewater, most states in the US (with some exceptions — check your local laws and guidelines) “are encouraging fishermen to spend time on the water, as long as they are being safe and following local regulations and guidelines”. While the law in most places doesn’t explicitly forbid you from going fishing, common-sense decisions such as staying home if you’re feeling sick, maintaining social distancing on the road and on the water, wearing a mask, and not touching your face, still apply.

While each state has its own flavor of guidelines (Onthewater has a useful rundown you can check), a few stand out as particularly helpful in the wider context of the epidemic. The state of Vermont, for example, advises people not to engage in activities further than 10 miles away from their home — meant to prevent spreading the virus around. Rhode Island offers similar advice, while also adding that people should try to boat only with people in their immediate household. Massachusetts uses a heavier hand, telling people not to share a boat unless everyone can keep at least 6 feet apart. Maryland, while allowing fishing as a recreational activity, says no more than 10 people are allowed on a boat at the same time, and they should all be residing in the same property.

Vermont cautions that people coming into the state even for recreational activities such as fishing will need to stay in quarantine for 14 days, and other states might have similar measures set in place. In Maryland, fishing competitions are still prohibited, as to not gather crowds.

In the UK, where fishing is considered a non-essential sport, the idea is more frowned-upon. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on May 10th that “individual sports such as golf and fishing” will “now be allowed”, according to CityAM. Australia has also re-allowed fishing since May 1st.

As a word of warning, aerosols from polluted waters may be able to infect you with the coronavirus, so wear a mask and follow all other guidelines against the virus even when you’re on the high seas (or a modest pond). Especially if there are lots of people around.

Quarantines on the high seas

While angling enthusiasts might not be particularly thrilled that they’ve been barred from their hobby up to now, commercial fishers are still struggling.

Restaurants and the foodservice business have been some of the hardest-hit sectors as people eat at home and tourism dried up completely. Fisheries that relied on them for a large part of their income are struggling to stay afloat. Oyster and shellfish farms are also finding it hard to make ends meet.

Ian Gilbert, a UK commercial skipper, told the BBC that the only options most producers now have to sell their goods are “fishmongers and the general public”. This mismatch between demand and supply has caused prices to “plummet”, he adds, further compounding the issue. One oyster farmer cited by the BBC has had to completely stop production, going from five tons a week to zero as there is no demand.

“Workers in Dorset’s sea fishing industry say it is struggling to survive the coronavirus lockdown,” wrote BBC two weeks ago.

Image credits: Johannes Plenio.

It’s not just restaurants closing that led to a drop in demand for fish. They may be the main buyers of seafood, but many people in many different sectors of the economy have lost their jobs, which further reduced demand.

Transportation is also more difficult, both due to restrictions imposed by authorities and by companies reducing activity or going out of business entirely. The International Transport Forum reports that “mobility restrictions to contain Covid-19 could reduce global freight transport by up to 36% by the end of 2020”. As such companies go under, they drive up costs, proving that chance does have a sense of humor, but a rather dark one.

There are, as in any other workplace, steps that need to be taken aboard fishing ships and the installations which support them to ensure safe working conditions. The Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center has a repository of useful materials to help captains and industry implement such steps here.

The EU has also approved emergency funds for the fishing industry to help it survive during the pandemic.

Overall, fishing as a hobby is slowly getting back to its feet and fishing as an industry is still struggling — it will likely be a while before you can take your fishing or hunting fanny pack and resume normal activity.

Only the fish are doing better

If there is one silver lining to the economic fallout and the personal struggles people in affected sectors are going through, is that at least natural ecosystems have had a chance to partially recover.

The Japan Times notes that the drop in demand is “likely to create an effect similar to the halt of commercial fishing during both world wars, when the idling of fleets led to the rebound of fish stocks”.

It’s deeply tragic that bad weather for us humans is the only thing that’s allowing marine environments to recover. However, hopefully the experience of this pandemic will help us find new ways to enjoy seafood without having to fish the oceans barren and that provide more job security.

Alternatives like aquaculture may prove to be more cost-effective and resilient in the face of natural disasters or disease.

Where is fishing headed?

Fishing is extremely sensitive to changes in international trade patterns, political relations, and environmental factors. In this regard, aquaculture brings unique benefits to the table, such as more stable supply chains and more easily-controlled (and safer) working conditions. However, it is not without its flaws.

“As a result of the drop in demand, and resulting price drops, capture fishery production in some countries has been brought to a halt or significantly reduced, which may positively influence wild fish stocks in the short term,” reports the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation.

“In aquaculture, there is growing evidence that unsold produce will result in an increase of live fish stocks, and therefore higher costs for feeding as well as greater risk of fish mortalities.

The report further notes that “small-scale aquaculture and fish farming operators in areas where fish imports are important may benefit from reduced competition, especially if they can secure retail markets” in the context of this epidemic. So there is a chance we will see a long-term shift towards fish farming and aquaculture at the expense of wild capture, especially as the industry struggles to bear the economic toll of the virus.

How the foodservice and transport industries recover after the pandemic will have a significant impact on the way the fishing industry fares.

The way heavy industry, in particular steel production and shipwrights, adapt to the post-epidemic world will also influence whether we see a shift away from wild capture and towards fish farming. The manufacturing of ships and maritime equipment has been particularly hard-hit by the epidemic, as these industries directly depend on global economic trends, trade volumes, and market sentiments — all of which have taken a significant hit. The European shipbuilding sector has already called for aid, so the cards are still pretty much in the air.

Fishing as a hobby isn’t likely to change significantly in the future — it’s always been a more solitary pursuit, enjoyed in the great outdoors, and politicians are unlikely to want to upset their voting bases when there are much larger fish to fry with the pandemic.

The most significant changes here are likely to come from shifts in patterns of personal mobility, as people might focus on local fishing grounds to avoid quarantines or spreading disease. Do wear a mask and wash your hands while doing it, however — it never hurts to err on the side of caution.

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