Conservation News

News, views and stories from the front lines of conservation


All recent news

Pandemic crippling small-scale fishing worldwide, study finds

© Art Wolfe

Demand for seafood has plummeted since COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect around the world.

For the 260 million people who depend on the fishing industry for their livelihoods, that decline could have catastrophic impacts well beyond the current public health crisis. 

A new study seeks to analyze the extent of that damage to small-scale fisheries — the coastal and non-industrial fishing enterprises that make up more than 90 percent of the global fishing industry. 

Conservation News spoke to one of the paper’s co-authors and the manager of Conservation International’s coastal community fisheries program, Dr. Elena Finkbeiner, about the bright spots for coastal fisheries amid “coronavirus chaos” — and what must happen to pave the road to recovery.

Question: Why are fisheries struggling right now? 

Answer: After reviewing news articles and firsthand reports from around the world, there are three main takeaways from our study that concern us about the future of the world’s small-scale fisheries. The first issue: The safety of the fishers themselves. Many small-scale fisheries are located in developing countries, or rural communities, which often lack the health infrastructure to protect fishers against disease spread and infection. Other fishing communities may be hotspots for infection due to proximity to their international ports, and because fisheries are highly mobile. Certain groups within fishing communities — women, migrant workers and indigenous peoples — face higher health risks due to existing inequalities.

Second: Many fishers cannot even get out on the water right now due to restrictions. Three out of seven people globally rely on fish as their main source of protein, and small-scale fisheries contribute around half of total fish production in the global market. Despite these contributions, governments often undervalue the importance of small-scale fisheries for food security. For this reason, some countries have not considered an “essential” service — and fishing activity has completely ceased since lockdown began, leaving people without income or food. 

Third: The pandemic is exacerbating vulnerabilities caused by existing stressors, such as climate change. In many areas, extreme weather events have become more frequent due to warming ocean temperatures, which can severely disrupt fishing activities and deplete fish populations even under normal circumstances. Now, the pandemic is adding to these challenges for many islands such as Fiji, which was recently hit by a major tropical cyclone at the onset of the nation’s coronavirus lockdown. 

Q: How are fishing communities coping with pandemic restrictions? 

A: Fortunately, there have been some bright spots for small-scale fisheries amid the coronavirus chaos. After advocating for their rights during lockdown, many small-scale fisheries have reopened and are taking advantage of existing or newly formed local food networks to support local food security, while staying in business. As demand for exported seafood has plummeted, these food networks have actually been some of the most resilient economic systems and sources of revenue during the pandemic. The success and resilience of these localized seafood markets could be a cause for the fishing industry to re-examine its high dependence on the international fish trade after the public health crisis is over.

In various coastal communities, such as in Mexico, Canada, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, there has also been an emergence of multiple “share economies,” which is when small-scale fisheries help particularly vulnerable individuals in their community gain access to food. For example, in Oaxaca, Mexico, a fishery has organized efforts with the government to donate 45,359 kg to 54,431 kg (50 tons to 60 tons) of fish weekly to the most vulnerable households. 

Q: What effect is the pandemic having on marine species and ecosystems?

A: While some news outlets have called the pandemic lockdowns a “blessing in disguise” for marine ecosystems because of reduced fishing pressures, there is so much more to the story. Due to low levels of fishing activity, fish populations and ecosystems are expected to rebound in some areas. However, these conditions will not last forever — and some people are actually taking advantage of them to practice illegal fishing. 

According to recent reports from Conservation International field offices, poaching and deforestation in the tropics have increased since lockdowns went into effect, largely enabled by weakened enforcement efforts that people exploited. We are seeing similar reports that identify an uptick in illegal fishing activity, for that exact same reason. The number of people patrolling the waters or enforcing marine protected area laws has decreased, so there is not enough capacity to properly control illegal fishing activities. A surge in illegal and unregulated fishing activity could have major impacts on global fish populations — and the communities who rely on them for jobs and income.

Q: What do small-scale fisheries need to recover post-pandemic? 

A: In the short-term, governments, NGOs and other actors need to help these fishing communities get the resources they need to weather the pandemic, including access to food, relief funds, personal protective equipment and assistance programs to support their fisheries in the long-term. 

For example, with the support of the Blue Action Fund, Conservation International Ecuador is providing protective equipment to local fishing communities across the Galápagos Islands to ensure that fishers and park rangers can continue to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the isolated populations in the Gulf of Guayaquil on the coast of southwestern Ecuador, Conservation International is leading efforts to provide immediate economic support and food to vulnerable families who typically depend on mangrove fisheries for their livelihoods. 

The private sector also plays an important role to ensure people have proper social and health safeguards such as protective gear all along the fishing supply chain — from the fishers to the people handling and storing the fish once it is caught to the local distributors selling the fish. Although many seafood markets have been disrupted, it is crucial for buyers and suppliers to maintain relationships with and continue sourcing from small-scale fisheries so that they can access the market during these difficult times. 

As a global community, we can all do our part to mobilize resources and support for small-scale fisheries, which are crucial for food and livelihood security around the world. 


Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A fisher in Benin, Africa (© Art Wolfe)

Further reading: