A University of Hull professor has advised the government on the impacts of COVID-19 on the UK fishing industry.
Richard Barnes, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Research, in the Faculty of Business, Law and Politics, recently spoke at a private briefing held by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
Reductions in demand for fresh fish, a loss of labour and cash-flow problems for small fishing businesses were among the challenges discussed at the meeting, which took place last month.
The UK fishing industry faces an uncertain future, first disrupted by Brexit negotiations with the EU, and now the impact of COVID-19.
Professor Barnes said: “The initial challenge facing the fishing industry was keeping business alive as everything else was shutting down.
“Many fishermen are either self-employed as crew members, or work as small businesses. A lot of the work normally available to them simply has not been there.
“Supply chains have been disrupted, buying prices of fish have been affected, and there are challenges getting products to market.”
Professor Barnes spoke at the committee alongside Professor Selina Stead, Head of the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling, and Dr Bryce Beukers-Stewart, Senior Lecturer in the Environment Department at the University of York.
The committee discussed both the impact of Brexit negotiations on the fishing industry, as well as the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Last year, the EU and the UK committed to reaching an agreement on fisheries by 1 July 2020. The UK will currently leave the EU Common Fisheries Policy at the end of 2020.
The Committee heard there this is currently a sizeable gap between the EU and the UK’s negotiating positions, but experts felt an agreement was necessary to ensure sustainable management of shared fish stocks and protect livelihoods in the UK fishing industry.
As Brexit negotiations continue, COVID-19 has now brought its own set of challenges.
Professor Barnes said: “In terms of getting back to sea, there is a lot of work to be done. Social distancing measures are problematic, and a lot of the workforce has either left the UK or cannot travel due to restrictions.
“The committee was very receptive to the challenges, and that will feed into Government.
“From my point of view, when you have the opportunity to make interventions which hopefully will have a positive impact on the industry and people working in it, that is very satisfying.”
The Committee meeting heard about the following challenges facing the fishing industry:
- Reductions in demand for fish, especially fresh fish, as consumers buy pre-packed food or smaller fresh food retailers close.
- Loss of labour and workers to man boats and process fish as many workers have left the UK.
- Challenges around getting supplies to markets, the need to be flexible with some standards (e.g. food labelling) and a loss of some export markets.
- Trying to create alternative markets to get fish to the table, such as support for online buying and delivery at regional levels.
- The longer-term risks of small businesses going bust which may already be vulnerable and have cash flow challenges.
- The knock-on effects of COVID-19 on Brexit negotiations and trying to reach a deal on fisheries (and then trade with the EU).