Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The impacts of COVID-19 on the fisheries and aquaculture food systems vary, and the situation is rapidly evolving.

Fish and fish products that are highly dependent on international trade suffered quite early in the development of the pandemic from the restrictions and closures of global markets, whereas fresh fish and shellfish supply chains were severely impacted by the closure of the food service sectors (e.g. hotels, restaurants and catering facilities, including school and work canteens). The processing sector also faced closures due to reduced/lost consumer demand. This has had a significant impact, especially on women, who form the majority of the workforce in the post-harvest sector.

The lockdowns implemented by some countries have resulted in logistical difficulties in seafood trade, particularly in relation to transportation and border restrictions. The salmon industry, in particular, suffered from increased air freight costs and cancellation of flights. The tuna industry has reported movement restrictions for professional seafarers, including at-sea fisheries observers, and marine personnel in ports, thereby preventing crew changes and repatriation of seafarers.

Some shortages of seeds, feeds and related aquaculture items (e.g. vaccines) have also been reported, due to restrictions on transportation and travel of personnel, with particular impacts on the aquaculture industry.

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. 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.

In some areas, an increase in retail sales has been reported due to the closure of the food service industry. Canned and other preserved seafood products with a longer shelf life have profited from panic buying at the beginning of the crisis. In some markets, suppliers have developed ways to provide direct supplies to consumers (e.g. box schemes) to replace lost fresh fish sales from established retailers.

There are still many uncertainties ahead, particularly with regard to the duration and severity of the pandemic, but a prolonged market downturn is likely to introduce long-term transformations to the sector.

Fish and fish products are a key component to a healthy diet and are safe to eat. Misleading perceptions in some countries have led to decreased consumption of these products. Yet, coronavirus cannot infect aquatic animals (finfish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates such as crustaceans and molluscs), therefore these animals do not play an epidemiological role in spreading COVID-19 to humans.

While there is no evidence of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses are transmitted via food or food packaging, fishery and aquaculture products can become contaminated if handled by people who are infected with COVID-19 and are who are not following good hygiene practices. For this reason, as before COVID-19, it is important to emphasize the need to implement robust hygiene practices to protect fishery and aquaculture products from contamination.

Fish and fish products are among the most traded food products in the world, with 38 percent of fish/seafood entering international trade. At the same time, fishing and fish farming are important at local level for the livelihoods of many fish-dependent communities, as well as for low-income countries and small island developing states.

Measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 (e.g. closure of food services, cessation of tourism, reduction of transport services, trade restrictions, etc.) have caused disruption in both domestic and international supply chains. The fact that live, fresh or chilled fish, which represent 45 percent of fish consumed, are highly perishable products presents additional logistical challenges. Furthermore, widespread containment measures can have a notable impact on nations that trade significant amounts of seafood, reducing foreign incomes or threatening food security. Keeping the supply chain open is fundamental to avoid a global food crisis.

It is not yet clear whether the sector will experience a quick or slow recovery after the pandemic is over. While some seafood companies may manage or even benefit from the crisis, a level of industrial consolidation is to be expected, as well as re-sourcing. Digital innovation, accelerated shifts towards Web-based applications, online services and improved product traceability and sustainability are some of the results likely to emerge from the crisis.

At a local level, fishers and fish workers are adapting by changing fishing gears, targeting different species or selling their products to the domestic market. Some fishers, fish farmers and fish workers are selling directly to the consumer. While these innovations will support communities, especially women operating in the post-harvest sector, domestic markets have limits both in terms of demand and price.

In the short term, possible disruptions to economies and livelihoods could come from labour shortages (travel barriers, labour lay-offs, etc.); direct boat-to-consumer sales; aquaculture input shortages (feed, seed, vaccines); as well as fishing (e.g. bait, ice, gear, etc.); competition for sourcing and transport services (something which is already happening in the agricultural sector); and a lack of finance and cash flow (delayed payment of past orders).

The pandemic has created in an unprecedented economic, social and health crisis with impacts on the most vulnerable groups including women (harvesters, processors and vendors), migrant fishers, fish workers, ethnic minorities and crew members. Many individuals are not registered, operate in the informal labour market with no labour market policies, including no social protection and no access to relief package/aid. These conditions might exacerbate the secondary effects of COVID-19, including poverty and hunger.

The small-scale fisheries sector is trying to make ends meet, to continue fishing and provide locally-caught fresh fish, but it is experiencing great difficulties due to the closure of markets, limited storage facilities, falling wholesale fish prices and new sanitary requirements and physical distancing measures. Because of these difficulties, many activities have been reduced. The reduction of fishing and fish farming activities will reduce the amount of fish available for processing and trade. Furthermore, mobility restrictions will adversely affect the transfer of fish to markets. This will particularly impact women, who are mostly in charge of these activities. Food loss and waste could also increase if processors do not have access to appropriate storage and cold chain facilities. Frontline employees who are processing seafood are suffering from a lack of protective equipment and clothing, which highlights the general lack of access to hygiene and protective equipment for the vulnerable workers of the seafood industry.

In the current situation, migrant fishers and fish workers, including ethnic minorities, are unable to return to their native villages due to lockdowns. They require immediate assistance including food and transportation (where movement restrictions permit) to reach their villages.

Working conditions and the safety of fishers at sea will be negatively affected should the number of fishers available to crew vessels be reduced. The availability of crew may be reduced for various reasons including inter alia contracting COVID-19, restrictions on movements or wider lockdowns. In addition, it is difficult for fishermen to maintain physical distancing measures of a metre apart on board fishing vessels. Should fishing vessels be forced to operate with fewer crew members, this may result in working longer hours, which will compromise safety measures and thereby put the well-being and health of fishers at risk.

Crew on large-scale industrial vessels (pelagic trawlers, purse seiners), that work work in rotations of several weeks before being replaced by another crew during their work break, are unable to travel home due to flight restrictions and quarantine periods. As a consequence, they are working longer periods on board, which increases the likelihood of on-board accidents, fatigue and stress (also relevant to the health of family members back home).

Large-scale fishing vessels of distant water fishing fleets also risk outbreaks of COVID-19 cases among crew members while away at sea. COVID-19 may spread rapidly among crew members of a vessel, and medical assistance is not always readily available. Also, when trying to enter a port where the crew are not nationals of the port state, access may be denied. 

Self-isolation and restriction of mobility reduce demand for fish and fish products, which has negative economic impacts on women’s livelihoods and income immediately (harvesting, processing and trading), and in the future. In addition to a lack of economic opportunities, women fish vendors may be exposed to a greater risk of infection, since markets are a place of close contact and have limited sanitation and hygiene facilities. This is all the more fundamental in view of women’s decreased job security, especially those informally employed in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors and migrant workers in seafood processing factories. They are thus unlikely to be eligible for, or have access to, social protection benefits offered by some governments to handle the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Moreover, lockdowns and mobility restrictions may modify the dynamics and power relationships between men and women within fisherfolk households and communities. It is therefore recommended that special attention and support be given to women and children who are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse in times of crises. As was also observed during the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a surge of domestic and family violence cases has already been observed in Australia, China, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America as a result of confinement measures.

While closing fishing operations will offer respite to some overexploited fish populations, similar constraints will also apply to science and management support operations. For example, fish assessment surveys may be reduced or postponed, obligatory fisheries observer programmes may be temporarily suspended, and the postponement of science and management meetings will delay implementation of some necessary measures and the monitoring of management measures. Lockdowns could lead to reduced capacity in Fisheries Monitoring Centres (FMCs), as was the case in West Africa during the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak – not only were staff not available, but limited national resources were directed to fund emergency activities and this left the FMCs unable to function effectively. Fishers who are able to continue fishing at sea know this and they may adapt their operations to engage in illicit activities and benefit from the MCS shortcomings. A lack of monitoring and enforcement of shared stocks may encourage some states fishing on these stocks to revert to a less responsible level of management, monitoring and control of fishing operations. 

At present, countries are primarily focused on policies and economic tools that protect the industry and jobs as well as working to ensure a quick recovery for the sector, with limited attention to long-term consequences. Some countries have disseminated information on recommended safety and hygiene practices at landing sites in local languages to facilitate understanding and uptake.

Within the seafood industry, there is an acceleration of trends already in progress (a shift to Web applications, online services).

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.

Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working with local fishers and women fish workers on responsible fisheries value chains by tracking catch and connecting to private households. The same initiatives are also being established with small aquaculture producers to allow for direct sale to private consumers.

In West Africa, regional small-scale fisheries producer organizations have teamed up to launch an electronic survey on COVID-19 impacts on small-scale fisheries.

In Brazil, a research group working with small-scale fisheries communities has set up a COVID-19 observatory. The research network on small-scale fisheries – Too Big To Ignore – has invited its members to share information about small-scale fisheries and COVID-19.

The global small-scale fisheries advocacy group I Collective in Support of Small-Scale Fisheries (ICSF) is featuring daily updates on the impact and initiatives in support of small-scale fisheries in the times of COVID-19.

FAO’s first objective is to ensure food and nutrition security by supporting and restarting fisheries and aquaculture food supply chains, while focusing on the most vulnerable groups and regions. 

  • FAO has developed a policy brief on the impacts of COVID-19 on the sector and policy response (
  • FAO is working with Member Countries, industry representatives and other stakeholders to monitor the situation and provide policy, management and technical advice, as well as technical support to innovate and adapt practices along the supply chain.
  • FAO is coordinating information and response with our international and regional partners e.g. regional fisheries bodies, intergovernmental economic organizations, research centres and civil society organizations.
  • FAO will continue to improve its understanding of the virus and assess any potential risks (as new information/knowledge become based on, e.g. international standards, expert opinion, peer-reviewed studies, etc.) to fishery and aquaculture food systems that may arise.
  • FAO will continue working with WHO to provide food safety guidance based on the latest available information to governments and industry.

FAO has assembled a dedicated COVID-19 Fisheries and Aquaculture Task Force to collect information, assess impacts and needs, develop examples of good practice, disseminate information and assist countries in addressing the impacts of COVID-19 in the sector.