Spain: Fishermen are facing their perfect storm: falling demand and sinking prices

Fish does not seem to be a food for the coronavirus lockdown. At least that suggest the sharp drop in demand since the state of alarm’s decree, which in turn has plummeted prices and is pushing fishermen to stop the activity.

Coronapesca III

The figures are clear: shellfish gathering in Galicia has fallen by 77%, while fish prices have fallen by more than 50% as a result of lower demand. The prices of fish caught by the Asturias fleet have recorded an average fall of 60%, in some cases reaching 80%.

A perfect storm

This perfect storm, with health threats and falling prices, puts a key sector for many Spanish regions in check. Fishing is an activity not to be affected by the suspension of non-essential activities declared yesterday by Spanish PM Sánchez. In this way, it joints the rest of the primary sector in maintaining supply to the population.

The sectoral organization CEPESCA has shown its maximum commitment encouraging the population to consume fish because of its nutritional properties and its contribution to a balanced diet. However, this organization has already warned of problems in the ports of unloading and health risks for the crews in the Sole Bank deep-sea fleets and the freezer fleet providing species such as hake, rooster, monkfish, cod, tuna or shellfish.

Javier Garat, CEPESCA’s secretary general who is the president of Europêche as well, declared that although they work “normally”, the difficulties for these fleets come when unloading in third countries ports because of the different measures being taken –border closures, states of alarm, quarantines-. He also pointed that, due to the Corona expansion, “crews’ members are staying longer in the ships to avoid contagion and additional precautionary measures are being taken”.

Market shortage

Basilio Otero, president of the National Association of Fishermen Guilds, sees “the impossibility of complying with protection measures against the coronavirus on small vessels and the fall in prices are gradually paralyzing the sector”. "We do not have masks and, especially in coastal vessels, where it is impossible to work with a distance of two meters, people are afraid," he adds. "The crews wear gloves, because we used them before, but it is impossible not to touch your face if you work at sea. We are going to fall ill," Otero says.

“In the event of someone becoming infected, the ship would be left in port and the crew would have to comply with the quarantine; there is a significant chance for the market to be unsupplied”, Otero declares, although Garat is confident that fish supply will be maintained “but it is clear there will be less fish”.

Garat also mentions “mobility problems” by requiring more vehicles to move the crews –three people per nine-seat van- and called for exceptions to be introduced in the case of inshore fleets (those fishing in domestic waters, which return to port during the day).

The inshore fleet

The inshore fleet is the most threatened at the moment, specially that located in the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Cádiz and the Northwest Cantabrian Sea, such as the Basque Country’s purse seine fleet. According to CEPESCA’s estimates, only 50% continue to fish and the situation takes on worrying proportions on the Mediterranean coast where 2,000 vessels out of 7,000 have already stopped their activity. In Galicia, between 2,000 and 2,500 vessels out of 4,200 are still active.

But what is increasingly threatening the sector survival is the prices fall of some emblematic species in the fish markets. Such would be the case, Garat said, of shellfish, which would be suffering the impact of the closure of restaurants, hotels and catering services. An example, the average price of hake in ports on March 16 (the first working day after the declaration of the state of alarm) was 6.7 euros/kg, falling to 3.3 euros/kg on the 20th, but by Friday, it was already selling at 5.9 euros/kg. Garat attributes that to factors such as the discharge volume or lower supply.

Another issue is that the Association of Maritime Fisheries Inspectors expressed its disagreement with the need to continue to go to ports to carry out on-board inspections during the state of alarm. “Due to the itinerant nature of our activity, we are a potential vector of the disease both for the fishermen and staff of guilds and markets”, the association states. The inspectors consider that “we have telematic tools to continue with the control and surveillance without exposing ourselves or others to contagion, since anyone who has boarded a ship knows that it is impossible to comply with the new security measures on board”.

Several sources