Addressing COVID-19 impacts on fish and aquatic food systems

WorldFish and partners join forces in research response

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread globally, many countries are putting in place unprecedented lockdown measures designed to contain its impact on public health. However, such measures are having significant impacts on other domains of human activity, including food and nutrition security, jobs, livelihoods, gender equality, and potential social unrest.

The implications will be serious and particularly dire for the poor and vulnerable living in developing countries. It is estimated that the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic could plunge more than half a billion people into poverty, with communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East expected to suffer the most. The impacts of this global health crisis and ultimately the economic crisis will disproportionately affect women and girls and reverse progress on gender equality on many levels. Unless sound and decisive measures are taken fast to keep global food supply chains going and to protect poor and vulnerable communities, a looming food crisis - with serious socio-economic consequences - will become inevitable.

Fish and other aquatic foods are a key part of our global food systems and a highly nutritious food group of major social, cultural and economic significance. Disruptions in supply chains for fish and aquatic foods are already happening due to disruptions in transportation, trade, and labor. Falling production from reduced fishing efforts and delayed stocking of aquaculture systems will lead to lower supplies, access, and consumption of these foods. Decreased consumer demand and increased transaction costs will have a knock-on effect that will push the price of fish and aquatic foods up and make them less affordable for poor consumers. Many people employed in these supply chains, such as fish vendors, processors, suppliers or transport workers will lose their jobs.

Already, coronavirus ‘lockdowns’ in developing countries are triggering a mass exodus of the urban poor migrating to their rural homes. With no jobs, no incomes or savings, and limited means and space to practice good hygiene and social distancing, millions of women, men, children, and elderly people will face death, disease or slow starvation. Those who can rely on subsistence agriculture, fishing and fish-farming to weather this crisis may have a chance at survival.

Governments, like other critical decision-makers, donors and private sector investors - the world over - will need to be guided by sound scientific data and knowledge to understand the severity and complexity of these issues. They will need solid scientific evidence to be able to formulate appropriate responses in terms of concrete policies and actions that work and work fast.

WorldFish, together with the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems and its many partners - across the public and private sectors - are already working to shed light on the nature and magnitude of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on fish and aquatic food systems in several developing countries where we work across Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Research responses are already being formulated to examine and understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in fish market systems and in poor and vulnerable communities, where fish and aquatic foods are vital to food and nutrition security, human health, wellbeing, and livelihoods.

  • Our genetics research teams in Malaysia, Egypt, and Bangladesh have taken early actions to manage critical aquatic genetic resources that are invaluable to millions of fish farmers and the aquaculture sector in Africa and Asia.
  • In Bangladesh, WorldFish is collaborating with several One CGIAR centers, the FAO and the World Food Program to provide timely evidence-based insights to shape and inform government advisories and policies to keep value chains operating in safe ways. The goal is to orient social protection schemes towards the most vulnerable and to keep food production and market supplies functional under enormously challenging conditions.
  • Our researchers in India are working closely with the Odisha state government to develop advisories for fishers and aquaculture farmers, hatcheries and markets.
  • In Timor-Leste, we are using high-resolution digital technologies to track and record pattern changes in small-scale fishing activities. We are also supporting local partners to keep tilapia hatcheries operating safely.
  • We have launched a multi-country survey on fish supply chains in Bangladesh, Egypt, Myanmar, Nigeria, Timor-Leste, and India in the states of Odisha, Assam and Andhra Pradesh. Weekly telephone interviews are being conducted with women and men farmers, fishers, input suppliers, processors, traders, and retailers, who enable the production and supply of captured and farmed fish across local and regional markets. The purpose of these surveys is to gather data on changes in the availability and price of aquatic foods and production inputs in key regions. The survey data is informing COVID-19 advisories and risk management guidance that is being disseminated to local fishing and fish-farming communities via our in-country partner networks.
  • Our nutrition and value chain experts have also provided inputs to the Interim Issues Paper on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition by the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to the Committee on World Food Security.

With telework being the new normal, all our country teams are now using a number of enabling digital technologies to continue and maintain close collaboration with partners and communities. To assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are collecting data on people’s priorities, needs, and coping strategies, and also seeking to identify and articulate science-based responses and solutions to support effective measures from local and national governments, partners and communities to this crisis. These early research activities are not exhaustive, and we remain agile and responsive as the situation evolves, as needs are assessed,  and as more data become available.

While responding to the COVID-19 outbreak challenges, we take enormous pride in the work of our researchers, our partners and the communities where our work is embedded. Our mission to harness the power of science to build a better world for healthy people and a healthy planet through fish and aquatic foods research could not ring truer for many of us.  We also recognize that responding to this unprecedented situation requires us to pool ideas, talents, resources, and efforts like never before, both within WorldFish as an organization, but also with our research partners within and outside One CGIAR, as well as governments and other public and private sector stakeholders.

This is not the first nor the last pandemic. Close transdisciplinary and international research collaboration – across the public and the private spheres - is necessary. Meanwhile, governments and individuals with the wealth to do so must continue to support scientific research so that we can ride the COVID-19 storm out, minimize its devastating impacts on the world’s poor and vulnerable, and find ourselves better prepared the next time.

Sound data and scientific evidence to shape effective responses to the impacts of this global pandemic on the food and nutrition security and the livelihoods of millions of poor and vulnerable communities in the developing world are critical if we are to ensure its impacts do not exacerbate the many inequities that already exist in our globalized world. Nutritious fish and aquatic foods, made safe, available, accessible and affordable, are part of that inclusive prosperous future we must imagine - now more than ever before - to secure healthy and nutritious diets for all. They are an indispensable part of the solution to ensure sustainable and resilient global food systems in the face of climate change, and the related global health crises such as the one under which we are now living and working.

Authors: Gareth Johnstone, Michael Phillips, Shakuntala H. Thilsted and Ben Belton