White, E. R., Froehlich, H. E., Gephart, J. A., Cottrell, R. S., Branch, T. A., Agrawal Bejarano, R., & Baum, J. K. (2020). Early effects of COVID‐19 on US fisheries and seafood consumption. Fish and Fisheries. https://doi.org/10.1111/faf.12525
What happens to a giant industry when it faces an even bigger shock?
Have you eaten seafood since March? If so, you’ve been a link in a system of seafood production that has weathered some serious disruptions since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
US seafood production is a giant and complicated system. The US is the world’s top importer of seafood, and the fourth-largest exporter. The seafood system includes everything from large-scale commercial fisheries to small-scale aquaculture (not to mention small-scale commercial fisheries, and large-scale aquaculture), recreational fisheries, subsistence fisheries and everything in between. Plus, a host of players are involved in processing, distributing, marketing, and cooking seafood— all the steps involved in getting it from the sea to your plate.
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, it introduced changes that could touch every facet of the big and complicated seafood system.
But the size and complexity of the system also makes it hard to predict impacts of a shock like COVID-19.
Understanding the impacts of COVID-19 can help governments and aid organizations decide where to invest in order to keep seafood systems functioning. Aware of the need for up-to-date understanding, a team of researchers set about tracking these unfolding impacts.
A case for unconventional data
Academic research has an important role to play in describing impacts of a shock like a global pandemic. However, research often operates in retrospect, as it takes time to assemble needed data. Often, the insights from academic research can come too late to shape government intervention in an ongoing crisis.
To understand COVID-19 impacts on US seafood as they progressed, these researchers got creative, and turned to a combination of traditional and not-so-traditional data sources.
Traditional sources included trade data and commercial fisheries reports. Trade data reveal the volume of fish and seafood crossing international borders— imports to the US or exports of US-based products. Fisheries reports convey landings, or the total weight of fish harvested. These are valuable data sources, but often aren’t available until months (or years) behind a crisis.
Faced with that constraint, researchers drew on not-so-traditional data sources. News analysis was used to get deeper insight and more complete stories of why seafood production numbers were changing. Location data from smartphones showed patterns of human foot traffic around seafood markets. Google search term trends provided a glimpse of what the US population was thinking and looking for, when it came to seafood.
Together, these data sources were combined to shed light on the ongoing impacts of pandemic on US seafood.
Early impacts disrupt production and demand
The impacts of COVID-19 on seafood appeared early in the pandemic timeline. Some of these changes began even before the virus was detected spreading within the US. As early as January 2020, news articles revealed concerns that a pandemic in China would lead to faltering demand for US seafood products abroad.
Soon enough, the consequences of the pandemic were felt much closer to home. Across all of the data sources the research team examined— landings, trade, foot traffic in seafood markets, Google search trends, and newspaper analysis— researchers found evidence of a negative impact of the pandemic on seafood production and consumption.
As the virus increasingly spread across the US, some commercial fisheries dropped off rapidly, while others stayed steady. By April, seafood imports and exports had dropped by more than a third. In seafood markets, foot traffic slowed when lockdowns began. Google search data reveals a similar trend— in April, searches for the term “seafood restaurant” plummeted compared to previous years. Newspapers began reporting on fishing seasons that were cut short, seasonal laborers who were unable to travel to take part in production, and outbreaks occurring at seafood production plants.
With time, the seafood system adapted
Fortunately, this is not only a story of decline. Even as seafood production and markets were disrupted by the pandemic, researchers also found evidence that different parts of the seafood industry were recovering.
Newspaper articles showed the emergence of direct-to-consumer marketing, where the seafood producer sells their product straight to the person who will be eating it. When the restaurants where US consumers usually eat seafood were forced to close, direct-to-consumer approaches helped producers maintain an income.
News analysis showed a shift in consumer demands, too— as the pandemic continued, the news increasingly reported consumers looking for frozen products. That pattern was reflected in some commercial fishery reports: for fish that are usually frozen, landings remained consistent throughout the pandemic. Even fish that are mostly sold fresh, not frozen, had begun to recover to pre-pandemic harvest levels by June 2020.
Recovery looked spotty in the seafood trade data. Frozen imports of seafood had climbed back to 2019 levels by July 2020, and imports of fresh, frozen, and live seafood began to increase in the summer as well. Export data showed a bumpier ride— numbers increased to 2019 levels in early summer, then dropped off again.
Some areas across the nation saw foot traffic in seafood markets increase again, too. By July, broad patterns of seafood market foot traffic were approaching 2019 levels.
Meanwhile, Google search data showed more people searching for ways to enjoy seafood without going out to restaurants. “Seafood delivery”, “seafood recipe”, and “sushi take-out” were all searched for at levels higher than previous years.
Where do we go from here?
Rapid assessments like this seek to guide policies that can address the negative impacts of the pandemic. The federal government has already taken some interventions to support US seafood production, including the passage of the CARES Act, the Payroll Protection Program, and the federal purchase of commercial fisheries products. The researchers behind this report call for future aid focused on supporting fishery-dependent communities and enhancing markets for fresh products.
The long-term effects of COVID-19 on US seafood are still uncertain. Different fisheries and aquaculture productions are sure to respond differently to the constraints and challenges imposed by the pandemic; others may have been able to recover but might need more relief soon. Plus, the impacts of COVID-19 on seafood producers extend to the broader community. Communities that are already vulnerable are likely to bear exacerbated challenges.
Finally, this research was published before the most recent wave of COVID-19, with daily deaths surpassing 3,000 people in the USA per day. Even with a vaccine on the horizon, these numbers are deeply sobering. The impacts of this pandemic will be closely felt— in the seafood industry and beyond— for a long time to come.
Hello! I’m a third-year PhD student at University of California, Davis, in the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior. My research focuses on how coastal communities make decisions around climate change adaptation. I’m lucky to get to explore this question across the West Coast (school!) and the East Coast (home!). When not PhD-ing, I’m happiest when reading, writing, backpacking, or gazing at the sea– whether that’s the Pacific or the Atlantic.