US seafood industry flounders due to COVID-19

Black and white photo of a hand holding a fish
U.S. Department of Energy.

The global pandemic is hurting the seafood industry, and American fishmongers may flounder without more government aid, according to the largest study of COVID-19’s impacts on U.S. fisheries.

The new study, published Nov. 23 in the journal Fish and Fisheries, found that monthly fresh seafood exports declined up to 43% compared to last year, while monthly imports fell up to 37%, and catches dropped 40% in some months.

Additionally, over the first six months of 2020, total U.S. seafood exports were down 20% and imports were down 6%, compared to the same period last year. Further losses are likely as restrictions increase to address COVID-19.

“Seafood has been hit harder than many other industries because many fisheries rely heavily on restaurant buyers, which dried up when the necessary health protocols kicked in,” said lead author Easton White of the University of Vermont. “Restaurants represent about 65% of U.S. seafood spending, normally.”

For context, over one million U.S. seafood workers regularly produce more than $4 billion in annual exports, much of which is processed overseas and imported back to the U.S.

While seafood data often takes several months — or longer — to compile, the research team, including Trevor Branch of the University of Washington, used pioneering methods to quickly determine the pandemic’s impacts on fisheries. U.S. Congress received preliminary data from the study in September.

The researchers found that in January 2020, demand for American imports plummeted as lockdowns began in China. Starting in March, web searches for U.S. seafood restaurants fell over 50%, and foot traffic at seafood markets decreased 30%.

Aid for fisheries has been slow, partly because pandemics are not currently considered valid reasons for a fishery failure or disaster under current law. The CARES act has authorized $300 million for the sector.

Even with increased demand for seafood delivery, which surged 460% for Google searches from March to April, some producers may not be able to recover without government assistance.

“Seafood is a seasonal business,” said White. “If you have a March to June season, and can’t get funds until next year, you might have to quit. Support from policymakers will decide which producers can survive.”

Aid should target regions where fisheries make up a disproportionate share of the economy, including in Maine, Alaska, Louisiana and Washington, as well as tribal fisheries, the researchers said.

“COVID-19 is a huge risk to the big factory boats that both catch and process fish in our waters — this combines the worst risks of cruise ships and meat plants. Their workers need priority access to the new vaccines,” said Branch, associate professor in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

“Foreign markets play an important role in the U.S. seafood sector, but dependence on exports leaves portions of the sector vulnerable to these global shocks,” added co-author Jessica Gephart of American University. “Diversifying the sector by building local networks and consumer education campaigns can help build resilience to future shocks.”

The study used traditional and novel sources of data, from NOAA fisheries reports and federal customs data, to anonymous commercial web location data made available to researchers studying COVID-19, and a comprehensive database of news and trends — created by University of Vermont students — tracking the pandemic’s impacts on fisheries, from plant closures and outbreaks to travel restrictions on seafood laborers.

While the drops in catches and international trade were stark, the researchers said some seafood producers have found ways to adapt. Community supported fisheries programs are increasing, with websites like Local Catch helping consumers buy fresh seafood that might have previously been sold to restaurants or at markets.

That said, home cooking won’t replace seafood restaurant sales.

“Most people who cook at home are not likely looking to cook fresh monkfish from Maine for themselves or their family, so the types of species being consumed is changing,” said co-author Halley Froehlich of University of California, Santa Barbara.

These changes in seafood consumption may be here to stay — particularly as global COVID-19 cases climb ever higher — as producers look for ways to sell more of their catches domestically.

Other co-authors are Richard Cottrell of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Rahul Agrawal Bejarano of the University of Michigan; and Julia Baum of University of Victoria.

This study was funded by COVID-19 rapid research funding from the Gund Institute for Environment at University of Vermont.

This piece was adapted from a University of Vermont news release.

Back to Top