Covid-19 impacts on seafood supply from October to December

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

Key points

  • Total seafood import volume was on par with 2019 levels during this period, while value remained slightly below 2019 levels.
  • UK landings were low and prices were supressed during this period due to market uncertainty and concerns around the combined impact of a potential ‘no deal’ Brexit trade agreement and Covid-19 restrictions.
  • 72% of vessel owners expected a decrease in profits in 2020 compared to 2019.
  • UK aquaculture businesses faced challenges in managing the mounting uncertainty of Covid-19 and Brexit impacts during this period.


Total seafood import volume was on par with 2019 levels during this period, while value remained slightly below 2019 levels.

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

Demersal import value remained low relative to volume benefitting importers at the end of the year. Low prices and relatively low stores – typical for the time of year - allowed importers and processors to re-stock before Christmas and the end of the transition period, when border disruptions were anticipated.

To avoid supply chain disruptions at the end of the transition period, many businesses producing frozen product worked to build up stock through the end of the year. Key retail species like cod, haddock and pollock were in particular demand
Simon Dwyer of the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association

In November and December, ahead of the festive period, shellfish import value and volume were up on 2019 levels. Salmon import value and volume did not see the same festive boost, remaining below 2019 levels through this period.

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

Table showing UK imports value 2020 vs 2019

  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish Salmon
Jul 3% 11% -17% -33%
Aug 28% -15% -2% -20%
Sep -2% -20% -2% -25%
Oct -21% 5% -15% -22%
Nov -3% 6% 1% -15%
Dec -14% 2% 10% -32%

Reports of increased costs in global trade continued during this period. Air and sea freight both saw a reduced service. Sea freight also faced issues around a displacement of empty shipping containers. The drop in price of imported frozen raw material – normally the largest operating cost for processors - allowed businesses to absorb increased transportation costs. The longer shelf life of frozen material also helped businesses to manage delays and other logistical issues caused by Covid-19.


Reports from fish auctions across the UK suggest that landings were low and prices supressed due to market uncertainty. There were concerns around access to markets with the combined impact of the UK’s future relationship with the EU and Covid-19 restrictions.

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


  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish UK
Value (Oct-Dec) -23% -5% -24% -16%
Volume (Oct-Dec) -12% 11% -13% 1%
Value (Jan-Dec) -20% 12% -34% -17%
Volume (Jan-Dec) -10% 13% -18% 0%

Initial plans to ease restrictions over the festive period provided some confidence in the market for higher-value species such as lobster. Though markets improved slightly in the run up to Christmas, they were not as buoyant as they would normally be at that time of year.

Ultimately the decision was taken across all four home nations to restrict Christmas gatherings and close restaurants over the festive period. This drove a decline in fish and high-end shellfish sales and prices by mid-December.

In response, initiatives like Call4Fish launched campaigns to encourage people to eat more seafood over the festive season. There was a particular focus on high-end species such as crab and lobster that would normally go to restaurants.

Demersal landings value was down around 25% in each month (October, November and December) compared to 2019 levels during this period.

Shellfish landing value was also down approximately 25% in October, November and December.

Some Scottish and Northern Irish scallop vessels faced specific issues due to Isle of Man harbour restrictions. Fishermen6 were banned from disembarking in Isle of Man harbours to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These restrictions impacted on visiting vessels during the Isle of Man scallop season which began on 1 November. Buyers reported scallop sales down as much as 40% in November.

Pelagic landings value was down nearly 30% in December as the fleet had already used up most of the annual pelagic quota.

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 2020 vs 2019 by month

*previously reported data have been updated to reflect most recent MMO data release.


  Demersal Pelagic Shellfish
Jul -11% 62% -35%
Aug -21% 13% -31%
Sep -9% 18% -28%
Oct -23% 2% -26%
Nov -23% -9% -24%
Dec -22% -28% -22%

In some cases, fishing businesses reported that poor weather in November kept prices higher than usual, partially mitigating against trade losses. But as the weather worsened and markets remained unreliable, some inshore fishermen opted to utilise government funds for self-employed workers rather than going to sea during this period.

Up to half of the Northern Irish Nephrops fleet reportedly took part in a tie-up scheme for mobile-gear vessels. Vessel owners could access government support of up to 50% of their average earnings in return for tying up. This tie-up period lasted six weeks from mid-October to the end of November.

Those targeting shellfish for export to Europe spent much of this period trying to get to grips with new documentation requirements and vessel inspections in preparation for the 1 January changes.

Vessel operators whose landings were destined for European markets were particularly susceptible to these markets’ volatility during this period. When these markets closed, processors stopped procuring raw material from UK vessels, causing demand and price to drop. Where possible, fishermen relied on strong relationships with buyers to manage supply and price during this period. Beshlie Pool, Executive Officer of South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen Ltd, explained: 

We saw our fleet and merchant members working together closely to keep product moving, with merchants sometimes driving themselves into difficulties to support the fleets that land to them
Beshlie Pool, Executive Officer of South Devon and Channel Shellfishermen Ltd

Prices for some ‘domestic’ species were reportedly stronger than those destined for export. Despite reasonable prices for some domestically consumed species in October and November, prices collapsed just before Christmas. This was a result of increased UK restrictions and Covid-19 border closures, particularly the French border, which impacted demand at home and abroad.

Seafish Covid-19 Fleet Survey results

Many fishing businesses faced volatile market demand and struggled with price through much of 2020. By October, 78% of vessels owners reported they had tied up or reduced activity at some point in the year in response to restrictions7.

Fishing usual 22%, Tied up or reduced activity 78%
Pie chart showing sector experience from October to December 2020

The rapidly changing operating environment fishermen faced forced many businesses to adapt their operations. Nearly 40% reported changing their fishing patterns as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, targeting different species, working different grounds or changing trip length and frequency.

Many vessel owners also changed their sales and distribution channels or switched between supplying international and domestic markets to get better prices. Some vessel owners altered shift patterns or crew but this was the least reported adaptation.

Fishing patterns (eg trip length/frequency, fishing grounds, target species) 39%; Markets (eg international vs domestic ) 28%; Sales & Distribution (eg direct and/or online sales, deliveries) 23%; Labour & crew (eg shift patterns, crew from non-EEA countries) 9%.
Diagram showing where fishing businesses made changes

With the challenging operating environment and reduction in landings across the year, 72% of respondents expected a decrease in profits in 2020 compared to 2019. Nearly a quarter were unsure what to expect and only 3% expected an uplift in profits.

Worse 72%, No change 1%, Better 3%, Unsure 24%
Pie chart showing expected business profits 2020 compared to 2019


The lead up to the festive season is an important time for UK producers of farmed seafood. Salmon, mussels, oysters and other species prove popular in- and out-of-home in the UK and abroad at this time of year.

Aquaculture demand and production continued to face challenges during this period. Businesses tried their best to manage mounting uncertainty from Covid-19 and the future EU-UK trading relationship. For example, to avoid potential export issues a number of mussel and other shellfish farms reportedly increased harvesting and exporting before Christmas. Some then planned to temporarily mothball in the new year to avoid any immediate trade issues following the end of the transition period.

Our strategy was always to get as much product out before the end of the transition period as possible then take a step back in early 2021 to avoid any teething problems at the border.
James Wilson, a mussel producer operating in the Menai Strait.

There were hopes that the usually lucrative Christmas period would allow losses from earlier in the year to be recouped. These faded as lockdowns in Europe caused foodservice markets to close. James went on to say:

We were initially optimistic that we would be able to make up for lost sales earlier in the year by the time our main selling season starting up in September. But we were soon hit by the second lockdowns in Holland and France in October and November and we were down to 40% of normal trade/
James Wilson, a mussel producer operating in the Menai Strait

Scottish salmon producers were in a similar position at the end of the year. The run up to Christmas is typically a big time for Scottish salmon, explained Hamish Macdonell, Director of Strategic Engagement for the Scottish Salmon Producer’s Organisation:

The 4-6 weeks before Christmas is absolutely vital for the sector, more salmon gets sold than at any other time in the year with up to a quarter of smoked salmon sales taking place in this time.
Hamish Macdonell, Scottish Salmon Producer’s Organisation

During the year, salmon producers had experienced logistical issues with their distant markets in China and the USA. The proportion of Scottish salmon going into Europe in 2020 therefore increased from around half to two-thirds by the end of the year. Pre-Christmas sales into Europe were even more important for producers aiming to make up for losses caused by disruption earlier in the year and so businesses were hit hard by the December border closures.

Even the most pessimistic view of the eventual Brexit deal did not see a full border closure and businesses certainly didn’t expect a closure before Christmas.

As a result of the closure we saw businesses scrambling to find domestic markets for orders stopped at the border and fish due to be harvested being held back. Orders that did eventually get through were arriving two to three days late and getting rock bottom prices.
Hamish Macdonell, Scottish Salmon Producer’s Organisation

Read more about Covid-19 impacts from October to December


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

Ana Witteveen
0131 524 8659
07815 428 554