Covid-19 impacts on production from July to September

Review of Covid-19 impact on production and distribution of seafood from July to September 2020.

Key points

  • Fish auctions adjusted to continued price volatility, working to remain agile in the face of demand uncertainty.
  • Transport and logistics systems ran more smoothly than in the spring.
  • Most processing businesses were back online by August, having made changes to ensure safe working while meeting ever-changing demand.
  • Virtual training courses gained popularity and some safety training for fishermen was possible in small groups in the summer.

Transportation and logistics

Through the summer, fish auctions continued to see heightened price volatility due to short-term changes in demand. Prices proved particularly sensitive to volume and quality. Fish auctions were forced to adjust to this new normal. They worked to remain agile and responsive to changes in demand as the second wave of infections led to increased national and local restrictions.

Some transport and logistics issues cropped up during this period but to a much lesser extent than in the spring. Raw material and product was moving effectively, albeit at times more slowly, at a higher cost, or through different routes. Limitations on seafood exports to China caused logistics issues and disrupted international supply chains.

Processing

Businesses continued to adapt to meet the ever-changing operating environment as restrictions began to ease. Close to three-quarters of processing businesses closed completely or reduced production at some point during the first lockdown. By the end of the summer most were back online and rebuilding capacity.

Closed 33%, Open 28%, Reduced activity 39%
Pie chart showing processing sector experience from July to September 2020

With factories traditionally designed to maximise the use of space, most processing businesses had to adapt considerably to ensure a Covid-safe working environment. Paul Treadgold, Health and Safety Officer at Flatfish Ltd, explained how they met these challenges:

We have managed the risks of Covid-19 in the factory with a number of control measures. These included social distancing on our production lines and work areas, additional PPE, enhanced hygiene protocols, an internal track and trace system, stricter procedures for visitors to the factory, and additional staff communications and discussion forums to support employees.
Paul Treadgold, Health and Safety Officer at Flatfish Ltd

While necessary to allow the business to continue functioning safely, Treadgold noted that these measures have added up-front costs to the business and disrupted operations:

We have maintained these controls at the same level since introducing them in March, regularly reviewing and improving controls day by day. Though we have been able to adapt successfully, the additional equipment, cleaning staff and staff downtime during team talks have come at an additional financial cost to the business.
Paul Treadgold, Health and Safety Officer at Flatfish Ltd

Processors also made changes to their sales and distribution channels. Nearly a quarter reported shifting their sales between international and domestic markets to adapt to changes in demand and keep businesses running.

Labour & Production 77%, Sales & Distribution 51%, Markets 23%, Sourcing 12%
Diagram showing where processors made changes

Larger shellfish processors were some of the last to re-start operations toward the end of the summer. Many of these businesses supply scallops and nephrops into foodservice markets. However, their cold stores were full following excess supply from strong 2019 landings and a lack of foodservice demand from April to June.

The re-emergence of foodservice markets in July allowed these processors to shift this frozen stock. They were then able to re-start production, increasing demand for raw material once more. Daniel Whittle, Managing Director of Whitby Seafoods, one of the main scampi processors in the UK, noted that:

The UK Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme helped a lot. It resulted in a significant increase in foodservice demand for scampi over the summer, which helped to clear stocks that had built up during the first lockdown. The impact of the high retail demand during lockdown, and the high demand seen in August has allowed us to continue buying raw material, which has meant the prawn boats could keep fishing.
Daniel Whittle, Managing Director of Whitby Seafoods

Businesses supplying the foodservice sector were cautiously optimistic in July as pubs and restaurants reopened in the UK and Europe. Many that had to close during the first lockdown reported doing well through the summer as foodservice demand picked up. Despite the re-emergence of the foodservice market, some processors were still struggling to get payments from these customers through the summer.

Some foodservice and hospitality contracts did not return in the summer, such as those for office canteens, school cafeterias and spectator sporting events (such as Wimbledon, The Open Golf, Regatta Sailing Week, Formula 1 Grand Prix). This significantly impacted businesses supplying these channels. Workplaces and educational establishments account for 7% of total seafood servings in foodservice and were down around 45% compared to the same period last year.

Businesses supplying retail continued to do well throughout the summer as retail sales remained strong. However, businesses supplying both retail and foodservice faced challenges balancing increased production levels while maintaining social distancing in factories as foodservice demand returned.

Processors supplying export markets fared better compared with April to June. Some businesses however struggled to source the necessary supply to meet returning demand which risked the permanent loss of export custom. There were also issues as European foodservice markets reopened only to close again. As restrictions ramped up again in France, Spain and other key markets in August and September, uncertainty increased.

Some processors that had previously expanded into direct sales through necessity dropped them as their traditional markets returned. Others continued offering online ordering and home deliveries to consumers, investing in new packaging lines and online marketing platforms.

Reports of rogue fish-sellers selling directly to consumers resurfaced as lockdown restrictions eased. Some processors expressed concern around issues of product integrity, quality and species being falsely marketed by rogue operators. Fears were noted that this could impact on consumer confidence and affect their willingness to buy genuine product from reputable suppliers.

Despite changes and operating uncertainty up to the end of September, around one third of processing businesses expected no change in their business profits this financial year, while 15% expected an increase in business profits and 43% expected a decrease in business profits. These expectations may be explained both by changes in markets, product demand and operating costs.

Pie chart showing expected processing business profits 2019 compared to 2020

Workforce

Concerns were raised across the supply chain around a replacement for the Job Retention Scheme (the ‘furlough scheme’). Processing businesses were concerned around the cost of maintaining staff levels while sales volumes were reduced, and keen to avoid having to make redundancies only to be faced with potential recruitment issues and costs when sales picked up again.

The reintroduction of more stringent restrictions in September brought a heightened risk of redundancies. Foodservice and hospitality were considered to be at particularly high risk. Some job cuts were announced during the summer, for example at Marks & Spencer and the Zizzi/ASK Italian chains.

Businesses continued to utilise additional personal protective equipment (PPE). They also allowed employees to work from home through the summer where possible.

Larger factories implemented additional measures such as restricting access to non-employees and conducting temperature checks prior to entry. Some businesses trialled worker bubbles to limit contact between employees while allowing workers back on site.

Employers and learners became more comfortable using online videoconferencing software for training. There was a steady increase in the delivery of courses to onshore seafood businesses during the summer. Many businesses saw advantages in online learning, as opposed to in-person training. Jennifer Howatson, HR Manager at Young’s Seafood in Annan noted:

We have found that remote training courses are advantageous as they save on travel time and costs when compared with traditional classroom taught programmes.
Jennifer Howatson, HR Manager at Young’s Seafood

Fishermen’s safety training also increased. Some in-person training resumed for smaller groups as restrictions eased in July and August.

Read more about Covid-19 impacts from June to September

Contacts

For further information on our review of Covid-19 impacts on the seafood industry contact:

Ana Witteveen
Economist
t:
0131 524 8659
m:
07815 428 554