Covid-19 impacts on seafood supply from January-March 2021

Review of Covid-19 impact on supply and primary production of seafood from January-March 2021.

Please refer to the downloadable version of this report for a full set of references, citations, footnotes and hyperlinks to external websites.

Key points

  • Many UK businesses reliant on seafood imports did not face significant sourcing issues during January to March, having sufficiently stockpiled frozen material by the end of 2020.
  • Many fishermen targeting non-quota shellfish species were impacted by depressed market demand through a combination of Covid-19 restrictions and export disruptions.
  • Fishermen targeting whitefish species faced both supply and demand constraints.
  • Salmon and shellfish aquaculture faced major export disruption.
  • Aquaculture businesses continued to manage ongoing disruptions in production cycles that began in early 2020.


Covid-19 continued to impact on UK imports during January to March. Production and exports from China were delayed at the start of the year. This was due to the extended Chinese New Year holiday, additional Covid-19 testing of the Chinese workforce and stricter control measures which impacted production levels in China .

Freight costs to import seafood from China remained well above pre-Covid levels. The ‘empty container problem’ recognised early in the pandemic which severely imbalanced trade flows through 2020 remained an issue .

Some container ships were reportedly tied up during January to March due to a decrease in trade volume and transport demand. Other ships reportedly lost cargo to storms causing additional disruption to inbound trade. The week-long blockage of the Suez Canal at the end of March disrupted an estimated £7bn of goods each day. It was expected to cause delays to UK-bound shipments in April.

Fortunately, many UK businesses reliant on seafood imports did not yet face detrimental sourcing issues during January to March, having anticipated possible trade issues and sufficiently stockpiled frozen material by the end of 2020. With stockpiles in place, import demand was lower at the start of 2021 than in 2020.Total seafood import value fell nearly 29% in January compared to 2020 . The decline slowed in February with value down 16% compared to 2020 and recovered in March, up 18% compared to 2020.

Bar graph showing import stats for demersal, pelagic, shellfish and salmon exports as outlined in the table below.
UK seafood imports value compared to previous year by month

Table showing UK imports value compared to previous year month by month

  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish Salmon
Oct 20 -21% 5% -15% -22%
Nov 20 -3% 6% 1% -15%
Dec 20 -14% 2% 10% -32%
Jan 21 -35% -25% -30% -28%
Feb 21 -25% -32% -30% +5%
Mar 21 -4% -2% -10% +119%


Overall seafood import value for January to March declined 9% compared to 2020. Import volume dropped by 12%.

Table showing % of UK imports for demersal, pelagic, shellfish, salmon and overall by value and volume in January-March for 2021 compared to 2020
UK imports 2021 compared to 2020
  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish Salmon Overall
Value (Jan-Mar) -21% -18% -24% +27% -9%
Volume (Jan-Mar) -16% -22% -19% +4% -12%

New import requirements for EU goods had a limited impact on trade during January to March. Requirements were initially scheduled for a phased approach beginning with new health certificate requirements from April 2021. However, in March the UK government announced a delayed timetable for the introduction of the next stage of UK import requirements. This was to ensure minimal disruption to supply chains as businesses entered a period of Covid-19 recovery.

This postponement had mixed reactions from businesses . Some businesses heavily reliant on imported product welcomed the extra time to prepare for the new requirements. Other businesses regretted the delay in bringing EU trading partners to a level playing field.

Despite the postponement, other new requirements did come into effect from 1 January, impacting UK businesses using imported seafood products. Some businesses in Great Britain bringing in raw material from the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland or France, for example, cited issues and uneconomical costs associated with non-tariff barriers.

Rules of Origin also began to impact UK imports from 1 January adding costs and logistic considerations for many UK operators. Businesses importing raw material from third countries and subsequently exporting products to the EU became subject to new tariffs.
For example, raw material imported from Iceland or Norway, processed in Great Britain, and then sold into the EU market.

Some loopholes were also identified for non-EU goods transported through the EU to Great Britain. Goods entering the EU for transit through the EU are not normally subject to full veterinary checks. This means that such goods require full checks at a border control post on arrival in Great Britain. Initially this requirement was not universally recognised leading some goods to be checked ‘inland’ rather than at the border after entering Great Britain.


During January to March, fishermen targeting shellfish species were mainly impacted by depressed market demand caused by ongoing Covid-19 restrictions combined with disruptions to seafood exports.

The fleets targeting quota species (specifically whitefish), however, faced a combination of supply and demand issues. Demand was dampened both domestically (foodservice closures) and abroad (foodservice closures and export issues). Supply was also limited due to uncertain access to fishing quota. This led many vessels to tie up or reduce their fishing activity while the markets were poor to save quota until better prices could be achieved.

During January to March, the UK and EU had yet to agree fishing quota allocations between their waters and fleets. As a result, vessels were given provisional quota allocations for the first three months of the year.

The lack of an UK-EU agreement also had knock on effects for the UK fleet’s access to Norwegian waters . Norway banned access to UK and EU boats until the UK and EU had reached an agreement on quota allocation. Without access to Norwegian waters, many UK and EU vessels were displaced into UK waters. This led to quota ‘pinch points’ as early as January for some whitefish species including whiting, hake and cod.

David Anderson, CEO of Aberdeen Fish Producer’s Organisation emphasized the scale of this access issue:

In a typical year, some of our whitefish boats spend up to 80-90% of the year fishing in Norwegian waters for a certain quality and size of fish.
David Anderson, CEO of Aberdeen Fish Producer’s Organisation

And access isn’t the only issue. As David explained:

New mechanisms for trading quota between the UK and EU member states haven’t been agreed. Re-establishing a system for quota swaps is a top priority for us.
David Anderson, CEO of Aberdeen Fish Producer’s Organisation

Subsequent allocations of UK quota amongst national fleets were also not yet agreed during January to March, leading to further uncertainty.

In mid-March, the UK, EU and Norway reached an agreement on six jointly managed North Sea fish stocks. This set 2021 catch limits for cod, haddock, saithe, plaice, herring and whiting. However, the agreement did not resolve quota exchange issues. As a result, a quarter of the way through the year, vessel owners still did not have a clear understanding of their fishing opportunities for 2021.

In response to this uncertainty many fishing businesses changed their fishing patterns. They targeted different areas or species to fit with their provisional quota allocations. Fewer or shorter trips were taken to secure better prices for quota used. In extreme cases fishing businesses opted for self-imposed tie ups until annual fishing rights became clearer or markets improved.

As a result of these supply and demand constraints, both demersal and shellfish landings value was down in January and February compared to 2020.

Bar graph showing UK vessel landing stats for demersal, pelagic and shellfish exports as outlined in the table below
UK vessel landings first sale value compared to previous year by month


  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish
Oct 20 -23% 2% -26%
Nov 20 -23% -9% -24%
Dec 20 -22% -28% -22%
Jan 21 -31% +65% -25%
Feb 21 -18% -80% -19%
Mar 21 +4% -26% +18%


Overall during January to March, demersal and shellfish landing were significantly reduced compared to 2020, while pelagic landings volume remained fairly steady and value increased.

Table showing % change in UK landings for demersal, pelagic, shellfish and overall by value and volume in January-March 2021 compared to 2020
UK landings 2021 compared to 2020


  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish Overall
Value (Jan-Mar) -34% +16% -32% -14%
Volume (Jan-Mar) -31% -3% -16% -10%


Ongoing Covid-19 restrictions on foodservice demand and previous disruptions to aquaculture production cycles in 2020 continued to impact producers during January to March.

Shellfish farmers supplying domestic markets faced depressed demand as the high-end restaurant market remained closed. Tristan Hugh-Jones of Rossmore Oysters explained:

We have seen a glut of oysters after a year of supressed demand. There are too many big oysters that need to be harvested to make space for young oysters on the beds but no market for them. As they are now too big to sell into the restaurant trade they have completely lost their value.
Tristan Hugh-Jones, Rossmore Oysters

Salmon and shellfish aquaculture also faced major issues with export delays and disruptions early in 2021. Worries over the reliability of trade routes, the wariness of customers and uncertain prices caused Scottish producers to hold back salmon exports in January and keep fish in the water for longer . They postponed or cancelled harvests to delay European exports until the trade situation stabilised.

However, this was only a temporary measure. In February and March this delayed stock had to be harvested along with the usual harvests. This was to make room for the next cycle of fish being grown to go to sea.

Even with these deliberate delays and cancelled harvests, businesses still faced costs. Some found that customers cancelled contracts due to the unreliability of trade routes. Delays caused by consignments being rejected or held up at the border also resulted in reduced quality and prices.

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO), which represents Scottish salmon farmers, estimated losses of £11m in January and February across the sector as a direct result of changes in the regulatory environment following the end of the transition period.

Live bivalve mollusc (LBM) producers operating in class B and C waters were further impacted by an EU ban on their exports, blocking them from pre-EU Exit markets. Previously, tens of thousands of tonnes of live bivalve molluscs from these waters were sent to the EU for purification before being sold to European consumers.

In 2019 and 2020, most shellfish aquaculture sites across Great Britain had class B water quality. 57% of sites have class B waters all year. A further 14% of sites have class B water seasonally. Only 26% of shellfish waters around Great Britain were class A the entire year. Most of these sites were in Scotland. This effectively meant many of the large-scale shellfish farmers, for instance those in Southwest England and North Wales, could not send their product – in bulk and unpurified form– to the EU for purification.

On 2 February, the EU clarified that the ban on UK exported unpurified, live bivalve molluscs would not change after new EU regulations enter into force in April (contrary to what was initially hoped) . This was a significant change for UK shellfish aquaculture businesses and led some businesses to explore other business models, including developing their own purification facilities. Others have been unable to resume trade since December 2020.

Read more about Covid-19 impacts from January-March 2021


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

Ana Witteveen
0131 524 8659
07815 428 554