Fishermen across the United Kingdom have expressed grave concerns about their future in the industry as fresh COVID-19 restrictions hit fish sales.
The industry has warned that thousands of jobs are at risk as restaurants cancel orders and doors shut due to coronavirus restrictions designed to prevent households from mixing.
Falling fish sales, in particular high-end fish such as crabs and lobsters, have prompted industry figures to call for greater government assistance and the launch of a campaign to persuade people to buy more fish over the Christmas holidays.
Call4Fish came together in March to help fishermen affected by the COVID-19 crisis, many of whom fell outside various government schemes for jobs and businesses. The group worked hard to enable consumers to source and buy fish locally, which was a great outlet for desperate fishermen.
Once again Call4Fish is calling on the British public to help out the nation’s distressed fishermen and have launched their latest campaign “Spread Christmas Cheer, Give Fish This Year”.
The idea behind the campaign is to set up a gift service in an attempt to fill in for the loss of the restaurant and party season. They have asked people to send a fabulous gift of a box of fish and shellfish to friends and family, and to stock up your freezers with locally sourced fish.
The campaign comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces calls this week to announce whether measures will be lifted to allow families to celebrate Christmas after one police and crime commissioner said the current guidelines meant officers would have to break up gatherings on Christmas Day.
As of today, Friday, almost nine million people will be living under the strictest alert level in England where mixing between households is banned indoors and in private gardens, while even the lowest restrictions in Tier 1 areas prevent groups of more than six from meeting up.
If the restrictions were to remain in place over the Christmas period, it would signal the end for many fishing families around the coast.
Former Director of fisheries and Marine at DEFRA and co-founder of Call4Fish Rodney Anderson said:
“The COVID crisis came hard and fast at the fishing industry in the Spring, had it not been for Call4Fish and other initiatives that helped suppliers and fishermen sell to the public things would have been a lot worse.
“On the continent boats were tied up for weeks, but here in the UK, the public support was unprecedented, it really kept the fleets going. They showed up at their fish shops, or went online and ordered for home delivery. Perhaps for the first time, across the country households were enjoying freshest-of-fish, a myriad of species found in our waters but not on supermarket shelves and the feedback was amazing.
“It is difficult to see without that public support once again rising up how many of these businesses will keep going to Christmas.
“Industry is warning that they are seeing a slow decline in sales over the past few weeks with prices dropping by 30% as export markets once again soften, restricted operations of some restaurants and lockdown affecting others are weakening demand for their products.”
Over the past few years fishermen have invested a lot of time and money into improving fishing methods and safety in the industry by investing in new boats or upgrading their current vessels. Boat owners and fishers are self-employed and many of them find themselves in debt with no income at this time other than their local fish sales.
St Ives skipper, David Stevens is owner of the trawler Crystal Sea SS 118 whose family has been fishing for twelve generations. The Stevens family took delivery of the Crystal Sea in February this year from Macduff Shipyards in Scotland.
Speaking on the the current situation Mr Stevens said:
“The problem for fishing families is that all incomes coming into their households are associated with their fishing business, so when their income from sea drops the whole family is affected and it’s not possible to make up for the poor prices their fish gets.
“We’re seeing fish prices dropping 30% from what wasn’t a strong place to start with due to further lockdowns across the UK and Continent.
“The public support was truly amazing through the lockdown and we’re going to need them and Call4Fish more than ever again now.
“So if you are looking for a great fish meal, you know who to call. There’s rough waters ahead for all of us. But we will keep fishing and people fed and hope for the best. It’s what we do.”
Catherine Spencer, Seafarers UK CEO said:
“Our research on Fishing Without a Safety Net was carried out before the impact of COVID-19. But even then, it was possible to see the fragility of the small scale inshore fishing industry with many lacking any savings or reserves to fall back on.
“When the first lockdown occurred the financial support programmes that were immediately actioned by Government for employees and the self-employed, mostly did not apply to fishing businesses. This left many fishers without any form of safety net at all.
“Seafarers UK is doing all it can to create a new financial safety net for fishers and I call on the Government to do the same. It is difficult to see how some fishers will survive a locked-down COVID winter without urgent Government intervention to put in place a safety net.
“Fishermen around the coast are already feeling the pinch. Normally at this time of year prices will begin to rise as hospitality starts their Christmas Party season and wholesalers prepare for their Christmas rush and take early stock positions, but not this year.”
“Crab and lobster prices have been poor all year and we had weeks when Covid hit when we couldn’t sell at all and so couldn’t fish,” says Plymouth based crabber Brian Tapper.
“We are a family business, me and my son work the boats and the wife has a small processing unit and shop. But it’s been a hard year and we don’t have the reserves we usually have to get us through the winter. It is all tied up together, our business also supports three other families who as crew and in the shop, we are their sole source of income too. I worry for all of us.”
Graham Flanningan of Berwickshire Shellfish whose family firm is responsible for selling the catches of 12 small crab and lobster boats in his area said:
“These latest industry concerns come on the back of a recently published report Fishing Without a Safety Net by maritime charity SEAFARERS UK commissioned last year that demonstrated fishing business, but in particular the small scale fleet often the beating heart of their coastal communities had little or no savings, or financial reliance, and that was before the first wave of COVID-19 in the Spring.”
The Berwick-on-Tweed shellfish trader has a large vested interest not alone in his boats but also in their crews and families.
“We have around twelve fishing boats,” he continues. “Boats that rely on us landing crabs & lobsters on a daily basis weather permitting.
“In October, we would normally see the lobster market prepare to place Christmas orders to pre-book stock , this hasn’t happened at all.
“Restaurants are closing at a terrifying rate & people who are still in work are very cautious with what money they have to spend.
“Over the last 9 months we have seen a massive drop on demand both in the UK and throughout France & Spain. Prices of Live Lobsters have dropped as much as 30% on this period last year. Sending markets into a downward spiral.
“The only good side to this is the fact that we created a new website last year and this has been a great success for online seafood orders during the 1st lockdown in the UK.
“We were able to send out packs of Fresh Fish & Shellfish on a daily basis, allowing our customers the chance to eat fresh healthy seafood delivered to their door the next day, as we look forward in the current climate it appears that this way of shopping for a lot of people is here to stay for sometime. Thus helping to keep our Fishermen’s families and ourselves in a job.”
Brexit has also brought a huge uncertainty to the fishing industry. The permanent loss of valuable markets such as France and Italy in the EU is a possibility but even if the access remains, the likelihood of high trade tariffs will diminish further meagre profits which is the fisher’s wage.
Plymouth crabber Brian Tapper summed it up in his conclusion:
“With the transition period ending on January 1st, and uncertainty of what that means for UK exports, it looks to be a long bleak winter for fishermen and the coastal communities who rely upon the shore based jobs that support it and them.”