Covid-19 at Sea: Impacts on the Blue Economy, Ocean Health, and Ocean Security

The COVID-19 pandemic will be a history-altering event. But where will it take us? In “On the Horizon,” a new CSIS series, our scholars offer their insights into the fundamental changes we might anticipate for our future social and economic world.

The blue economy—including both those who work at sea and those whose livelihoods depend on it—presents a unique challenge for efforts to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Ports depend on the movement of goods and people, something antithetical to pandemic control. Many of the world’s 4.5 million fishing vessels remain at sea for weeks or months at a time, leaving them intensely vulnerable to shipboard Covid-19 outbreaks that may arise from stops at harbors around the world. Yet ports must remain open, and fishing vessels must continue to fish—90 percent of the world’s cargo moves by sea, and fish provide essential protein for 1 billion people, many of whom would be undernourished and vulnerable to the disease without it. This commentary examines how Covid-19 will affect life at sea, outlining the potential impact of the pandemic on ocean security, the marine environment, the blue economy, and health and human rights aboard fishing vessels.

Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Ocean Security and Sustainability

Even in the best of times, the ocean is a poorly-policed, untamed frontier. The Covid-19 pandemic will exacerbate the offshore law enforcement gap, as coast guards and navies look inward to manage domestic crises rather than police the seas. The U.S. Navy has already canceled this year’s Obangame Express joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Guinea, the world’s most piracy-prone region, with 112 attacks in 2017. Pirates, poachers, and smugglers, on the other hand, can continue operating. They may even have greater incentive to resort to crime, faced with few other opportunities in a global recession.

Illicit fishing is likely to increase as well. As law enforcement on the ocean declines in the coming months, it will be worth watching data from vessel automatic identification systems (AIS) and satellites to determine whether signals of illicit fishing, such as activity within marine-protected areas and AIS spoofing and toggling, tick up. A less secure ocean will be less well-managed and less able to sustainably provide resources like fish over the long term.

By contrast, legal industrial fishing operations are likely to decline, especially over the near term, from a combination of the risk of being at sea in a pandemic and supply chain complications caused by market closures. The last time a global crisis affected the fishing industry on a similar scale was World War II. During the war, the closure of the North Sea allowed regional cod and haddock stocks to rebound, resulting in robust catch throughout the 1950s. We may see similar examples of marine ecosystem resilience today, but any ecological recovery faces potential caveats:

  • Decreased law enforcement at sea may give malefactors more opportunities to fish illegally and to ignore quotas.

  • Supply chains may face pressure to move toward increased transshipment of fish at sea as ports are closed and access restricted. Such practices are harder to regulate and more likely to be associated with illicit fishing and human rights violations.

  • A reduction in operational ocean science (research cruises are already being canceled) could undermine stock assessments and management regimes even in currently sustainable fisheries.

The lack of up-to-date ocean science data will be especially problematic in data-poor regions of the developing world and because climate change means fish are on the move. Sustainable management therefore relies on accurate, timely data more than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic is making good data harder to attain.

Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Blue Economy

Fish is the world’s most widely traded food commodity, but market disruptions, as a result of the pandemic, have already begun to change that. Consumers have dramatically increased demand for frozen and processed seafood while turning away from fresh caught products. This is a result of both a run on foods that may be kept through periods of isolation and a reflection of the fact that in many developed markets, such as across the United States, most consumers eat fresh fish in restaurants and other public spaces that are no longer open.

Market closures in Europe have caused a crisis for fishers in the United Kingdom, which exports 70 percent of its catch. In the United States, 90 percent of seafood is imported or processed overseas . Some U.S. companies outsource a portion of their processing needs by sending U.S.-caught seafood abroad to facilities in China before reimporting it for final packaging for the U.S. market. Covid-19 may drive these companies to re-shore processing operations to avoid trade disruptions caused by the pandemic and future crises.

Covid-19 will undoubtedly impact the seafood sector along multiple vectors. One useful approach for predicting long-term impacts of the current outbreak is to divide the industry into categories based on the duration of fishing trips within the sector:

Vessels that return to shore each day are common in small-scale or near-shore industrial fisheries and in artisanal fisheries throughout the developing world. These vessels do not run a risk of developing an outbreak while far offshore. However, by necessity, they rely on tightly linked shore-side networks, whether through local markets, commercial buyers, processors, or families and communities who rely on the catch for food security. In all of these situations, social distancing may be impractical and outbreaks highly disruptive. Moreover, many artisanal communities are poorly served by health infrastructure and at high risk from a global pandemic. Still, artisanal fishers may benefit from reduced competition with industrial fleets limited by concerns about offshore epidemics.

Fishing vessels that transship catch and are at sea for months to years at a time are relatively few in number but catch enormous quantities of fish on an industrial scale. They are common in the Pacific and Indian Oceans—among Taiwan, China, and Japan’s distant-water fleets and in Russia’s far eastern fleet. They catch species as diverse as tuna, squid, and pollock. Transshipment—the practice of transferring catch from one vessel to another at sea—limits their risk of exposure to Covid-19, allowing boats that have been at sea since before the outbreak to continue operating relatively normally. However, any actual outbreak at sea would be catastrophic.

Vessels that fish offshore for weeks or months but do not transship catch are common in fisheries around the world, including in the U.S. domestic fleet. Seafood sectors that rely on vessels in this class may face the greatest challenges in effectively dealing with the risk of Covid-19. It is not tenable to leave port with fishers possibly incubating Covid-19, and then spend months at sea in cramped, crowded conditions away from medical help. Additionally, shore-side visits are frequent enough that long voyages at sea do not necessarily serve as a de facto quarantine, so fishers risk acquiring Covid-19 while at port. These dynamics may increase pressure on these vessels to alter voyage times and pursue alternative ways for getting their catch to market, including possibly introducing or increasing the use of transshipment in novel sectors.

Moreover, many distant-water fishing vessels rely on foreign ports for offloading catch. This is especially common in Africa, South America, and the Pacific Islands. Mauritania’s closure to foreign fishing vessels, for example, has already disrupted access to the port of Nouadhibou, one of the top five harbors most frequented by distant-water fleets. China’s network of private overseas fishing bases, however, may allow the Chinese fleet—the world’s largest—to sidestep controls.

Examples of how major fisheries fall into these category highlight how impacts may vary across the seafood industry:

  • Global tuna fisheries are comprised mostly of longline and purse seine vessels that operate far offshore for weeks, months, or even years at a time. Pacific tuna purse seine fleets are required to transship in port—often in island-states (e.g., Majuro, Marshall Islands; Suva, Fiji) before shipping catch to markets in Europe, Asia, and North America. Port closures would be devastating to this sector. Longline tuna vessels transship mostly at sea and have some of the longest trip durations of any sector, providing some level of insulation from the epidemic but also putting isolated crews at greater risk for human rights violations. Demand for longline-derived catch may also be decreasing over the short term.

  • The Peruvian Anchoveta fishery—the world’s largest by catch volume—relies on industrial purse seine vessels, which spend weeks to months at sea but largely do not transship catch.

  • Many U.S. fisheries serve the domestic fresh fish market and are already in significant danger of disruption and economic hardship. Vessels in the largest U.S. fishery—the Alaska Pollock Fishery—spend weeks to months at sea and may have to shorten voyages or alter processing protocols, which often involve export and re-importation to and from China.

Beyond the fishing industry, ocean tourism will suffer as travel slows. Coral reef tourism generates $36 billion per year, a value that has been a key driver in marine conservation. Lost revenues may increase pressure for near-term exploitation. Small island states like the Maldives, where ocean tourism accounts for over one-quarter of GDP, are especially vulnerable.

Impacts on Fishing and Public Health

Covid-19 outbreaks aboard fishing vessels represent a significant threat to public health. Fifty million people are employed in marine fisheries—largely in developing countries with dismal records on safety, health, and human rights. Long-haul fishing vessels are cramped, crowded, and can be exceptionally unhygienic. Crew are often malnourished and forced to work for up to 20 hours each day. A lack of medical supplies means cuts can stay infected for weeks. Moreover, many vessels rely on undocumented migrant workers who are not subject to public health controls.

Assuming a median incubation time of 5.1 days for Covid-19, a fishing vessel with 30 people aboard could see its entire crew infected in under a month. Operating a ship with mostly sick crew members would be next to impossible, forcing ships to return to port. But transit times make it likely that in many scenarios most on the ship would be infected by time they reached shore. Finally, because many distant-water fishing vessels use foreign ports in developing states with poor health controls and oversight, infected vessels could generate new Covid-19 outbreaks. Other types of vessels, in navies, coast guards, and the shipping industry, would be subject to some of the same factors but are generally less crowded and better regulated, and so they do not pose as great of a concern.

Impacts on Human Rights in the Seafood Supply Chain

Changes in the way the fishing industry operates caused by Covid-19 may in turn affect the human rights and working conditions of fishermen in a number of ways. First, those who return to shore each day will have to continue working and interacting with others, putting them at increased risk of the virus simply because they are poor—like many others making subsistence livings.

Workers on larger vessels that stay at sea for weeks or months face additional risks, regardless of whether or not the vessel transships. Given credible past reports of fishermen in conditions of forced labor being beaten, placed in physical confinement, marooned on islands, and in rare instances killed, there is a significant risk that vulnerable migrant workers who show Covid-19 symptoms could face solitary confinement or be left at sea. If existing coast guard and navy oversight of these vessels diminishes due to Covid-19 concerns, these workers will be yet more vulnerable.

Workers on vessels that do make periodic port calls may face an increased risk of acquiring Covid-19 and may endure the illness under challenging health and safety conditions without access to adequate health care. Fishermen, especially those in forced labor, sometimes lack access to clean water and adequate food, rendering them more vulnerable to illness. Moreover, if a vessel’s workers do become infected, the vessel may be turned away at ports. This could leave sick and vulnerable fishermen without access to medical care, food, or water stranded at sea.

If the rate of transshipment increases due to concerns about Covid-19 infection, more of these workers will have no access to land for months or years, leaving them vulnerable to a number of well-documented abuses, since they cannot leave the boat to report them or escape at a port. Boat captains may also have incentives to make it harder for their existing crews to leave their jobs because of concerns that any new workers might be infected.

In sum, to protect both fishermen and the public, a proactive strategy is needed, coordinated across jurisdictions, to provide health services to fishermen and monitor their health and ensure they are not stranded at sea in vulnerable conditions. These services should be provided to those who are healthy and sick, regardless of their legal or immigration status. The situation also highlights the ongoing need to improve working conditions and communication channels at sea so that fishermen are less vulnerable, during the Covid-19 crisis and afterward.

Whitley Saumweber is director of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Amy K. Lehr is the director of the CSIS Human Rights Initiative. Ty Loft is program coordinator and research assistant for the CSIS Stephenson Ocean Security Project. Sabrina Kim is an intern with the CSIS Stephenson Ocean Security Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Whitley Saumweber
Director, Stephenson Ocean Security Project, and Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative
Amy K. Lehr
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative

Ty Loft

Sabrina Kim