Despite economic, health and food security implications, the collapse of small-scale fisheries (SSFs) proves to be a lesser-known casualty of COVID-19. The trend could spell trouble for people across the globe that rely on fish for income and as a nutritious food source. A new correspondence from fisheries experts published in The Lancet Planetary Health,examines limits of local management strategies in the face of global market shocks, calling for solutions, such as market diversification, as a means to protect and enhance sustainable food systems.
“Small-scale fisheries provide vital nutrition and livelihoods to millions of people around the world. They are too important for an equitable and sustainable food system to risk their failure,” said senior author Fiorenza Micheli, co-director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions.
As January 2020 marked the onset of a rising global pandemic, it also signaled major change within fishing imports. In China – the second largest seafood importer worldwide behind the U.S. – seafood demand and imports dissipated, causing the collapse of the SSFs market that supplies half the world’s seafood and employs up to 90 percent of fishers. Consuming seafood has been linked with reduction in malnutrition and disease, and stands to play a larger role in the global food system as the population climbs toward a projected nine billion people by 2050.
Using the spiny lobster as an example, the authors highlight how reliance on a limited number of foreign buyers, rather than an assortment of less lucrative domestic markets, can make or break a fishery. In this case, the market for spiny lobster in China – valued at approximately 912 million dollars – abruptly halted before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public emergency. Unable to find alternate global buyers at premium prices, approximately ninety percent of global spiny lobster catch was halted along with lobster fisher incomes.
Despite the global pandemic being a unique event, more common occurrences such as recessions, political instability and natural disasters reinforce the need for solutions that protect SSFs against global market volatility. While the spiny lobster is just one example of many, the authors note mitigation efforts the World Bank and UN Food and Agriculture Organization have undertaken such as insurance policies, market diversification and alternate market options. Calling for further development and scaled-up approaches to these mechanisms, the authors also stress these advancements remain key toward attaining Sustainable Development Goal 14, which aims for sustainable use of marine resources.
"Solutions must be adopted thoughtfully to ensure equitable sustainability of small scale fisheries – particularly to protect human populations in the Global South who rely heavily on seafood as a source of financial stability and nutritional means, and who already face the most uncertainty with the rise of climate change," said lead author Christopher Knight, a PhD student in Biology at Stanford University.
Micheli is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the David and Lucile Packard Professor of Marine Science at Hopkins Marine Station. Additional authors include Theresa Burnham, PhD candidate in Ecology at San Diego State University and University of California, Davis; Elizabeth Mansfield, PhD student in Biology at Stanford; and Larry Crowder, the Edward Ricketts Provostial Professor of Marine Ecology and Conservation at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station.