Fish Factor: Pandemic hits to seafood industry demand and pricing will be long lasting

Fishing vessels near Cordova Harbor. (May 14, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The global seafood industry will experience lasting impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, including reduced demand and pricing.

That is the conclusion of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report produced every two years by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the only report that tracks global fisheries and food trends.

This year it included a special focus on the pandemic which has toppled seafood markets and supply chains around the world. The report forecasts that global seafood production will be down 1.7 percent (6.6 billion pounds) and the trade value of seafood will decrease by nearly $6 billion.

Of that, wild capture fisheries are projected to decrease by 2 percent (nearly 4.2 billion pounds), while aquaculture production is expected to decrease by 1.4 percent (2.6 million pounds).

The virus impacts also have pushed down prices. The global Fish Price Index showed an 8.3 percent drop in fish prices between January and May of this year compared to the same time in 2019.

The closure of restaurants has drastically curtailed seafood demand, the report said, leading to the “evaporation of foodservice demand in many important markets.”

“Effects on retail sales have been more mixed, however, with demand for packaged and frozen products boosted as households look to stock up on non-perishable foods,” it added.

“Whatever the timeframe, prolonged market downturn can be expected even after current restrictions are lifted or relaxed,” the report said. “Luxury products and species that are primarily marketed fresh and through foodservice will be the most heavily affected. Most seafood trade events will continue to be postponed or cancelled for some time to come.”

Salmon has been the most valuable traded seafood commodity since 2013 and accounted for 19 percent of the total value of internationally traded fish products in 2018. Production growth is expected to increase, but at a much slower pace.

A worldwide drop in demand for salmon of at least 15 percent is projected and retail sales are not expected to recover for some time, the FAO said, adding that retail sales of fresh salmon will be especially hit hard.

More upbeat highlights

Seafood is one of the world’s most widely traded food commodities and global fish consumption has increased by 3.1 percent on average from 1961 to 2017, higher than all other animal proteins. Estimates peg global per capita fish consumption at over 45 pounds in 2018.

World fisheries produced a record 212 billion tons in 2018, 5.4 percent more on average from the previous three years. The increase was due mainly to anchoveta catches of 15.4 billion pounds from Peru and Chile. Alaska pollock ranked second at 7.5 billion pounds, followed by skipjack tuna at 7 billion pounds.

Global aquaculture production also reached another all-time record of nearly 252 billion pounds live weight in worth nearly $264 billion in 2018.

The US ranks 6th overall for marine fish captures following China, Indonesia, Peru, India and Russia. The Northwest Pacific had the highest production at 25 percent of global landings.

It’s estimated 59.5 million people were engaged in fishing and aquaculture in 2018; women accounted for just 14 percent.

The total number of fishing vessels, from small non-motorized boats to large at-sea processors, was 4.56 million, down 2.8 percent from 2016. Asia still had the largest fleet, estimated at 3.1 million, 66 percent of the total. Nearly 80 percent of current landings come from biologically sustainable stocks.

The Mediterranean and Black Sea had the highest percentage of stocks fished at unsustainable levels (62.5 percent), followed by the Southeast Pacific (54.5 percent) and Southwest Atlantic (53.3 percent).

In contrast, the Eastern Central Pacific, Southwest Pacific, Northeast Pacific and Western Central Pacific had the lowest levels (13–22 percent).

Too much seafood is either lost or wasted around the world — 35 percent, the UN report says. Seafood is recognized as not only some of the healthiest foods on the planet, but also as some of the least impactful on the natural environment.

Fish watch

Alaska’s salmon catch was nearing 8.5 million fish as of July 3; over half were sockeyes, mostly from Bristol Bay where catches continued to build. Anecdotal reports said the average sizes of sockeye are down at Bristol Bay and the same for pinks at the Alaska Peninsula.

Chinook salmon in Southeast also are smaller, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The kings were weighing in at 11.7 pounds on average, down two pounds compared to the past five years. Trollers can catch over 85,000 Chinook salmon this summer, a 51 percent increase from last year. The summer fishery opened July 1 and was expected to last about one week.

Fishermen in Quinhagak have formed a group of 70 harvesters to revitalize commercial salmon fishing in Kuskokwim Bay. The Independent Fishermen of Quinhagak Cooperative also includes members from Goodnews Bay, Platinum, and Eek who will sell to E&E Foods. It’s the first fishery since 2016 when the Coastal Villages Region Fund pulled the plug on buying local fish.

Divers in Southeast continue to pull up giant geoduck clams and crabbers are into a two-month summer fishery for Dungeness based on a strong start to the season. Only 117 crabbers are on the grounds, down from 170 last summer; the price has dropped to $1.72 a pound compared to $2.97 last season.

Kodiak crabbers also are dropping pots for Dungies.

A red king crab fishery is open at Norton Sound but because of concerns for the stock, most fishermen were opting to fish for cod.

A golden king crab fishery opens on August 1 in the Bering Sea with a 6.6-million-pound quota.

A ling cod fishery opened in Prince William Sound on July 1, and a herring food and bait herring fishery opened June 29 at Dutch Harbor.

Scallop fishing opened in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea on July 1 with a reduced quota of 277,500 pounds of shucked meats. Almost half of that goes to the Yakutat region.

Halibut landings were nearing six million pounds, or 36 percent of the 16-million-pound catch limit. Homer leads for landings, followed by Sitka and Kodiak.

For sablefish, 10.5 million pounds of the nearly 32-million-pound quota have been taken. Sitka has seen the most deliveries, followed by Dutch Harbor and Kodiak.

Fishing for pollock, cod, flounders and other species is ongoing in the Gulf and Bering Sea.

Catch this!

Alaska Fishtopia brings previously scattered sportfishing information all together for the first time direct to mobile phones.

“Literally everything you need to know about fishing in Alaska, whether you’re on the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak or wherever you’re at, you have all of the resources,” said Britt Lueck, Fishtopia marketing director.

“You can also download the regulation books to your phone, and you don’t have to be connected to the internet to view them. And you can select a region and see every kind of species that you can fish for,” she explained. “And a really big piece of the app is the maps feature which has multiple layers and you can check out tides, currents, marine weather or what is the best time to fish for halibut or whatever.”

Alaska Fishtopia also has a vigorous, interactive social component.

“You can post pictures of the fish that you’re catching. And you can stay connected with local guides who have opportunities for you to jump on a boat if they have an open seat. We’re also promoting events and entertainment,” Lueck said. “So, when I’m done fishing for the day and I want to go grab a bite to eat and maybe listen to some local music, where can I go? It brings the entire fishing community together in an app.”

Alaska Fishtopia was created by Jim Voss of Alaska Boat Rental and Guide Service in Kenai.

Members who pay $1.99 a year are eligible to win big prizes from local businesses all summer. Find out more at akfishtopia.com.