Covid-19 impacts on production and distribution

Review of Covid-19 impact on production and distribution of seafood, from January to June 2020.

Key points

  • Under lockdown, businesses faced issues with regularity and reliability of transport and logistics.
  • Operating uncertainty led to processing business closures or temporarily reduced production as businesses accessed government support and furloughed workers.
  • Some businesses closed permanently, while others adapted their products and routes to market to suit the new operating environment.
  • Businesses that remained open or re-opened during lockdown had to adapt to new social distancing requirements.

Transportation and logistics

Despite seafood being classed as an essential good, movement along the supply chain was highly disrupted:

  • Borders closed (trapping some containers);
  • Export and foodservice markets largely disappeared; and
  • Domestic demand from consumers became uncertain.

With markets in flux and no certainty about how long these disruptions would last, many logistics companies cut back their services. This made international and domestic routes less regular and reliable during lockdown.

High freight costs also made access to international markets more difficult for both importers sourcing raw material and exporters supplying external markets. Most fish auctions across the UK stayed open. Some closed briefly to prepare for altered or reduced operations with changes in supply and demand, and new social distancing guidelines. Many markets engaged with Producer Organisations and fishermen to try to even out supply and keep prices as buoyant as possible.

More generally, ports and harbours reliant on fishing and tourism activities were hit hard. They saw reduced income, major reductions in trade and in some cases temporary closures. However, some ancillary services such as vessel maintenance saw additional trade as a result of the reduction in normal vessel operations.


The UK seafood processing sector is diverse and the impact of Covid-19 market shocks on businesses varied widely.

Pie chart illustrating processing sector experience during UK lockdown. 75% ‘Sorry we’re closed’. 25% ‘We are open’

Processing businesses that closed

Early indications suggest that 75-80% of all majority seafood processing businesses had to either reduce their activities or completely close at some point during lockdown. Some businesses closed permanently.

Those supplying foodservice or reliant on live or fresh export markets were at particular risk when these markets disappeared “overnight”. Small primary processors, such as those in Northeast Scotland and the Humber region, supplying fresh whitefish to the foodservice sector were hit particularly hard.

From early April, some businesses that had closed during the initial three-week lockdown period started making plans to reopen. They adopted social distancing measures such as fewer staff on production lines. From late May a few more processors reportedly reopened for business. They were possibly encouraged by:

  1. The phased reopening of bars and restaurants in key European export countries.
  2. The return of some domestic foodservice business offering ‘click&collect’ and delivery.

Larger companies more reliant on wholesale markets were generally slower to return to business. Many were only starting to take employees off furlough towards the end of June.

Processing businesses that remained open

The remaining 20-25% of processing businesses were able to continue business at normal or higher than normal levels. These tended to be businesses with smaller workforces, even family bubbles, meaning social distancing measures were easier to implement quickly.

Some smaller businesses started or scaled up online retail operations and home deliveries, with reports of as much as 200% increases in sales. For some, this increase in retail productivity offset the complete absence of wholesale trade and they anticipate increased profits this year.

Larger businesses supplying the retail sector also saw a surge in demand, particularly in March as consumers stockpiled ahead of lockdown. These businesses faced a unique challenge to both:

  1. Quickly adapt operations to meet new social distancing requirements on the factory floor.
  2. Increase production or adapt foodservice lines to meet heightened demand for retail products.

Industry Employment

From mid-March, businesses began to adapt operations and premises to meet social distancing requirements and changing market demand.

This impacted employment across the supply chain with employees:

  • required to work from home where possible,
  • facing cuts in hours,
  • being furloughed, or
  • being made redundant.

Seasonal recruitment, some apprenticeships and other employee training was put on hold.

How businesses adapted

Impacts on business operations: social distancing, more personal protective equipment, staggering shifts, redesigning work spaces, training online

Businesses that continued to operate during lockdown had to adapt to ensure social distancing. This affected:

  • shift patterns,
  • production lines,
  • ride share arrangements, and
  • canteen facilities.

While these changes were necessary, they reduced operating efficiency and, in many cases, increased production cost per unit.

Challenges for fishing vessels

Implementing social distancing guidelines on fishing vessels was a particular challenge. Many fishing businesses chose to reduce operations as a result of the new requirements and volatile demand and market prices.

Vessel owners employing foreign crew faced a further challenge. Many were not eligible for furlough or support schemes for the self-employed. Some crew members also faced visa issues in returning to port in the UK or traveling back to their countries of residence during the lockdown period.

Impacts on training

With training course delivery unable to continue as normal, training providers began to move some courses online. This allowed some training and formal learning and exams to continue during the lockdown period. It also removed some the usual obstacles of gathering attendees in person.

Employees from all parts of the supply chain were found to have engaged with online learning. For example, many fishing vessel owners and their families now selling directly to the consumer were able to access webinars on how to promote and sell their catch. Some also completed online food hygiene training.

Meanwhile the majority of offshore approved training providers closed or significantly reduced operations during lockdown.

Read more about Covid-19 impacts


For further information contact:

Ana Witteveen
0131 524 8659
07815 428 554