Covid-19 impacts on seafood supply from July to September

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

Key points

  • Imports recovered somewhat as foodservice demand returned.
  • The value of UK shellfish and demersal landings were still well below the same period in 2019.
  • Some aquaculture businesses struggled with poor demand while others capitalised on direct sales to see them through this period.

Imports

Imports recovered somewhat from the lows of earlier in the year as foodservice demand re-emerged and retail demand remained strong. Some imports remained low as businesses needed to sell off stock remaining from the lockdown period before importing new raw material.

Table showing % of UK imports for demersal, pelagic, shellfish and overall by value and volume for 2020 compared to 2019
Table showing UK imports 2020 compared to 2019

Import values for demersal species increased compared to the spring as demand for fish and chips remained strong. Imports of chilled fish products also picked up to meet the renewed foodservice demand for fresh fish. Shellfish import values remained below 2019 levels, with farmed shrimp production in southeast Asia and India still recovering from the first wave of restrictions.

Bar graph showing import stats for demersal, pelagic and shellfish exports as outlined in the table below
Graph showing % change value in UK seafood imports 2019 vs 2020 by month

 

Demersal

Pelagic

Shellfish

Apr

-29%

14%

-13%

May

-19%

-31%

-33%

Jun

-5%

-12%

-29%

Jul

3%

11%

-18%

Aug

27%

-19%

-6%

Sep

-2%

-21%

-3%

Landings

Pelagic landings remained strong as large trawlers shifted to the summer herring season. The value of UK shellfish - and to a lesser extent demersal - landings were still well below the same period in 2019. Both rely more heavily on export and UK foodservice markets.

With ongoing challenges in export markets, many shellfish fishermen struggled with poor prices through the summer. Some invested in holding tanks to help manage supply and improve prices for fresh lobsters and crabs. Many continued to sell direct to consumers. James Roberts, skipper-owner of the Bonnie Grace, an under 10m vessel working static nets and pots from Newlyn, Cornwall, said:

I started selling some fish and lobsters directly during lockdown and continued to sell lobsters directly to local families through the summer as traditional demand and wholesale market prices remained deflated.
James Roberts, skipper-owner of the Bonnie Grace

The market for nephrops slowly strengthened as foodservice demand improved prices for whole nephrops and helped shift frozen tail stock. Due to the high levels of frozen nephrops stock from the strong 2019 fishery, many Scottish operators turned to other fish species to supplement their income, where quota allowed. Similar issues arose for scallop dredge operators, with a backlog of stock and an oversupply to the market causing record low prices at the start of the summer.

Bar graph showing UK vessel landing stats for demersal, pelagic and shellfish exports as outlined in the table below
Graph showing % change first sale value of UK vessel landings 2019 vs 2020 by month

 

Demersal

Pelagic

Shellfish

Apr

-39%

-32%

-58%

May

-34%

3632%

-54%

Jun

-8%

19%

-42%

Jul

-14%

62%

-39%

Aug

-24%

13%

-35%

Sep

-11%

16%

-31%

Strong domestic demand for whitefish species, in particular cod and haddock, was seen at major UK fish auctions as merchants returned to the market. Prices for fresh product were exceptionally sensitive to volumes, quality and size throughout the summer, with no market for small or lower-quality fish. Some exported whitefish species, like monkfish, received reasonable prices but others, like hake, struggled to sell. Supermarket promotions in France helped prices of some export species into August. Summer squid and inshore mackerel fishing in Scotland also provided a good opportunity for some vessel owners to diversify their catches.

Table showing % change in UK landings for demersal, pelagic, shellfish and overall by value and volume for 2020 compared to 2019
Image block – table showing % change in UK landings, 2020 compared to 2019

The Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) resumed fishing vessel surveys at the end of July, prioritising under 15m vessels categorised as high risk. The Fishermen’s Mission launched a support line to direct fishermen to social, emotional and financial support.

Aquaculture

The effects of lockdown on future aquaculture supply due to ongoing disruptions to aquaculture production cycles continued to be an issue. Many shellfish farms saw limited demand through the summer. Some farms were not expecting to sell any product this year while others have diversified into domestic markets. Those able to adapt their product offerings and sales avenues, utilising government support where possible, fared better in the ever-changing operating environment.

With around 90% of their mussels sold into the UK foodservice market, Fowey Shellfish saw sales plummet overnight when the UK entered lockdown in March. Their mussel sales fell from 7-8 tonnes to less than 1 tonne per week. Explaining how they adapted, director James Fox-Davies said:

To keep the business going we used a government grant to develop a web shop and strengthen our Instagram presence so we could sell direct to the public.
James Fox-Davies, Director of Fowey Shellfish

Like many seafood businesses, Fowey stepped back from direct sales when their main foodservice market returned. Fox-Davies added:

In July and August, when foodservice re-opened, we saw business boom in southwest England, where our business is based. Our mussel sales hit a weekly record of 10-11 tonnes per week as tourists flocked to Devon and Cornwall and many residents opted for staycations. This boost in sales tailed off somewhat as kids went back to school, but remained high through September as people made up for the holidays they missed in the first half of the year.
James Fox-Davies, Director of Fowey Shellfish

Mussel producers were concerned that the imposition of further restrictions in the run up to Christmas could affect them adversely. The nature of production cycles meant that they had dodged the worst of the impacts as the spring lockdown coincided with their low season.

Two UK commercial shrimp farming ventures continued to capitalise on the market’s growing demand for locally sourced food. Flo-Gro Fresh, the UK’s first domestically cultured warm water prawn producer, saw their business grow, despite production challenges. Ralph Maxwell, Managing Director of Flo-Gro explained:

By mid-July larvae suppliers had reorganised their transportation networks and we were able to resume production. Sales through our new online shop and new-found online retail customers continued to grow week on week. We are now looking at how we can sustainably expand the business to meet this new retail demand alongside our traditional foodservice markets as they reopen.
Ralph Maxwell, Managing Director of Flo-Gro

Salmon exports remained below the record high levels seen in 2019. They were impacted both in terms of value and volume, selling for lower average prices overall. 

Value -22% / Volume -10%
Table showing UK salmon exports for July to September 2020 compared to 2019

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