Response to Coronavirus Epidemic

23rd March 2020 in Domestic Fisheries Policy

The Government has reacted to the potential health and economic damage caused by the pandemic, by announcing interventions on a scale not seen before outside mobilisation for war. New measures to encourage social distancing and to limit economic damage are being announced daily, with the aim of saving lives and preventing heath support systems being overwhelmed. Within the economy and society, individuals, businesses and organisations are taking their own steps to mitigate the impact of the temporary but massive crisis.

Response to Coronavirus Epidemic

There are three tests by which the Chancellor’s package will be judged: does it hit the right targets, is it big enough and is it in time?

Fishing

Some of the measures announced to date will be relevant and significant for the fishing sector. Many will not because of the peculiarities of the way our industry is organised. The immediate challenge is therefore to identify the support measures available which can be used and the gaps which will need to be filled by additional tailored interventions.

Workers in the food industries have been designated as key workers, along with those employed in transport and so exempt from some social distancing requirements. This should help to ensure that supply chains remain operational.

The Government’s support measures include direct grants to businesses in the hospitality sector but the main support (£300 billion of the £350 billion) is earmarked for loans available to struggling firms. The massive intervention to support those in waged employment by meeting 80% of each worker’s wages (up to £2500 per month) will not be available to the self-employed, including self-employed share fishermen. This is an obvious gap.

That is why an urgent support package shaped to provide meaningful aid to the fishing sector is needed and is being worked on. We expect an announcement shortly.

It will be important that the package:

  • Keeps those boats at sea, and supply chains operational, where this is an option
  • Creates the conditions that allows vessels and crews which have had to tie-up to bounce back, as soon as the crisis is over

Industry Self-Help

Whilst the form of a government support package is being worked on, the fishing industry is itself taking what steps it can to help, within the strictures of a dramatically altered market landscape. Demand for shellfish species like crab and lobster has fallen away so dramatically that the knock-on effects on fishing vessels is immediate. Buyers are, with few exceptions, not buying. There are some early signs of an increase in demand from China but that is a small uptick within an otherwise unrelieved picture of desperation – especially on the back of a winter of storms which prevented most vessels getting to sea – and earning – for several months.

The situation with whitefish is more mixed, depending on the specific markets involved, and the steps being taken to maintain fish prices. Producer organisations and market authorities are evening out supply to avoid market gluts as far as possible. This is being done in different ways in different places but overall the aim is to keep the fleets at sea - albeit with a lower level of activity – to maintain supply, keep supply chains operational, people fed, maintain earnings, keep crews intact and businesses viable for when the crisis passes.

The closure of pubs, restaurants and supermarket fish counters obviously has a drastic impact on demand. At the same time, there is a recognition that social isolation measures have potentially created a significant market for door-step deliveries and there are signs, right around the coast, of fishing boats, markets, producer organisations, and existing supply businesses adapting to these new opportunities. No one is pretending that they can substitute for the mainstream supply-chain, but they are welcome and potentially important initiatives.

Regulatory measures

A range of regulatory measures could be changed to support the sector through the crisis.

These might include:

  • Suspending proposed cod recovery measures in the pipeline where it is judged that the drop in demand for fish will directly reduce fishing pressure on cod and act as a substitute for restrictive measures
  • Adapting the EU landing obligation to leap-frog impediments to the efficient operation of fishing vessels, and in particular eliminating the risk that chokes in mixed fisheries could tie up fleets if the quota for a minor species is exhausted
  • Removing obstacles to securing storage aid for fish withdrawn from the market and temporarily frozen. Although generally cold stores are full, there is some spare capacity that could be used for this purpose
  • Accessing EU tie-up aid – the UK is no longer formally an EU member state but is continuing to contribute to the EU budget in 2020, so this should be available through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund

Charity Sector

The charity sector has swung into action by:

  • Leverage and support for an emergency grant relief fund
  • Raising awareness / communication support for welfare fisheries charities (Shipwrecked mariners / SAIL / Fishermen’s Mission / Seafarers Hospital etc.)
  • Promoting the Fathom podcast – ‘how to sell direct’, to be broadcast on the CFPO website and circulated more broadly to industry. Here
  • ‘How to sell direct’ guides
  • Loan / Credit Union Support
  • Identify the vulnerable
  • Letter to supermarkets urging support for the fishing sector
  • Development of an interactive supply chain map
  • Communication materials and tools to support a home fish and shellfish delivery service

Summary

The scale and speed of the economic support measures put in place by government are both vital and unprecedented in peacetime. Being very broad-brush the measures announced to date do not amount to an adequate level or form of support that is commensurate with the challenges facing the fishing sector. Work is under way within government and within the fishing industry itself, to fill that gap.

A jigsaw of measures is appearing. Some pieces have been put in place quickly. Others are still being shaped to fit. It will be some time until the full picture emerges, in these remarkable and challenging times. Urgency is paramount.