The UK suffered the largest contraction among top fishing nations during the coronavirus pandemic, according to tracking data analysed by the conservation group Global Fishing Watch.
In a year of unprecedented decline, the UK and China saw the most “dramatic declines” in fishing activity undertaken within their territories, it said. In Britain, whose fishing industry was badly hit by storms in the months before the pandemic, there was a drop of 368,000 fishing hours in 2020, or 16.5% compared with 2019, while in China there was a fall of 2m fishing hours, down 13.5%. Fishing activity also decreased in Italy, Spain, France and Norway, mostly in the first months of 2020.
Early on in the pandemic, boats were tied up and many workers in the Scottish fishing industry were forced to use food banks as export demand fell, restaurants were closed and lockdown restrictions were introduced all over the UK.
Overall, fishing activity was down 5% globally in 2020 compared with the previous year, according to preliminary analysis of AIS (automatic identification system) vessel data by Global Fishing Watch, a non-profit organisation campaigning for greater transparency in the fishing industry.
David Kroodsma, the director of research and innovation at GFW, said most of the drop happened in March and April, during the first few months of the pandemic. “Human society experienced a mass upheaval in the last year and anything that can look at an industry across the world is both fascinating and sobering,” he said.
Britain, which underwent large declines in fishing in the Channel and the Irish Sea, saw a drop even before the pandemic, he said. In contrast, the preliminary findings showed there was an increase of more than 15% in fishing hours across the year in the US, South Korea and Japan, compared with 2019.
Asked to explain the anomaly, Kroodsma said the reason was unclear. “This is preliminary data, we have to go back and look. But what is exciting is that we have a global dataset of how the industry responded. There were different regulations on different fleets. It could be they allowed their fishers to go out during that time.”
GFW recorded 63,000 vessels as having fished for more than 50m hours in 2020, consituting a 9% decrease in the number of active fishing vessels and a 5% decrease in the number of fishing mhours compared with 2019. This decrease, however, is likely to be a significant underestimate of the actual decline in fishing activity, GFW says, because in a normal year fishing activity should have increased. Year on year, GFW has recorded on its database an average increase of 14% in vessels and 16% in fishing hours because the number of vessels required to have AIS has risen.
GFW said that while it was “beyond the scope of this analysis to determine to what extent Covid-19” was responsible for the changes in fishing activity, the timing, where many countries experienced extended reductions in fishing shortly after thepandemic declaration last March, suggested a strong link.