Half-a-year after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, strong impacts have already been observed in the small-scale fisheries sector along the West African coast.
December 2019 saw the outbreak in Wuhan (Hubei province, China) of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus infection, which has raised intense concern globally over the past five months. Since its outbreak in China, the virus has indeed spread to most countries, with ever increasing cases and deaths being reported. The sanitary emergency around the virus has led to the implementation of drastic social distancing and lockdown measures worldwide, which have already shown the differentiated long-lasting socioeconomic vulnerabilities of people in face of the pandemic, both in developed and developing countries. COVID-19 has recently been described as a symptom of the ailing health of our planet, resulting from mankind’s dysfunctional relationship with nature and the ongoing degradation of ecosystems worldwide, driven by wild capitalism and ever accelerating globalization.
Social distancing and lockdown measures have already had profound impacts on the global economy, and are already considered as bad as those faced during the Great Depression. A contraction of the global economy by 3% is expected in 2020, much worse than that of the 2008 financial crisis. On the other hand, worldwide lockdown measures also resulted in the sharpest drop in CO2 emissions since the beginning of measurements, with a plunge of daily emissions of 17% in early April 2020 in comparison to 2019 levels. Recent estimations hence amount to a potential 5% fall in global carbon emissions in 2020. While this 5% drop would be good news in the battle against climate change, it however remains below the 7.6% annual cuts in global emissions required to meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.
While this slowing down of the world economy has also been found to already have positive impacts on wildlife, including marine ecosystems, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the entire fresh seafood sector has collapsed, as restaurants, hotels and other food related businesses closed. The seriousness of the situation has led the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to release a policy brief in early April:
“Although COVID-19 does not affect fish, the fish sector is still subject to indirect impacts of the pandemic through changing consumer demands, market access or logistical problems related to transportation and border restrictions. This will in turn have a damaging effect on fishers and fish farmers’ livelihoods, as well as on food security and nutrition for populations that rely heavily on fish for animal protein and essential micronutrients”.
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11th, global fishing activity has dropped approximately 10%. These figures however do not include the impacts on small-scale fisheries (SSF), but only those affecting the world’s industrial fleet, as stressed by Global Fishing Watch. In fact, while approximately 120 million workers globally directly depend on commercial capture fisheries value chains – fishing, processing and marketing – for their livelihoods, more than 90% operate in the SSF sector. In the sector, observed negative impacts of the pandemic so far include shut-downs of entire fisheries, chain reactions from market failures driven by reduced demand and collapse of seafood prices, and rising health risks for fishworkers and their communities. In many fisherfolk communities, social distancing measures even prevent some small-scale fishermen from going out at sea, since their boats are often too small to ensure the distancing requirements are being followed on board. The International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF) has recently launched an online platform dedicated to the specific impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fisheries and fishing communities.
In West Africa particularly, COVID-19 could not have come at a worse time for some of the most vulnerable communities that are in some cases already confronted with hunger or conflict. While Senegal has been found to be the most resilient country to COVID-19 in Africa and the third most resilient in world, social distancing measures taken to mitigate the spread of the pandemic in the country have already disrupted the functioning of artisanal fisheries systems, on which the country’s economy strongly depends. In Mauritania, the harshness of similar measures taken in the SSF sector by authorities to control the spread of the virus has led to strikes. In Sierra Leone, restriction measures caused a riot among fishermen.
In Côte d’Ivoire, but also in Senegal, in addition to small-scale fishermen, women fish processors are at the frontline of the effects of the pandemic on fish value chains. Similar situations have been observed in Ghana and in Guinea, where the fish supply and processing chains have now been under severe strain for several months. The pandemic is in fact also expected to deepen gender inequalities across the whole seafood sector. In the wake of these socioeconomically precarious situations, the African Confederation of Professional Organizations of Artisanal Fisheries (CAOPA) has recently called upon partners to ensure measures are taken in order to help artisanal fisheries pursue their activities during the crisis.
In the midst of COVID-19 impacts, some West African governments – in Ghana or Senegal for instance – have furthermore recently faced the flak of small-scale fishermen for considering granting foreign-owned vessels from China and Turkey licenses to fish small pelagic species that are considered already overexploited. In addition, at a point where the current fisheries monitoring system is already under stress, and the profession of fishery observers increasingly faced with dangers of disappearances and deaths, reductions in monitoring, control, and surveillance measures of fishing activities during the COVID-19 outbreak could open the door to more Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. Ensuring that marine ecosystems are being exploited at ecologically sustainable levels is hence a paramount task for national governments, all the more during the pandemic, and particularly in the light of the important role that fish protein has for the future of food security.
Header picture : Mamadou Aliou Diallo