NOAA Fisheries Releases Assessment of COVID-19 Impacts on U.S. Fishing and Seafood Industries in 2020
Below you can find a snapshot of the effects of COVID-19 on the seafood industry (commercial harvesters, aquaculture, seafood dealers and processors) and for-hire fishing sector for 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused large scale disruption to the US economy and global markets in 2020. As states implemented a suite of social distancing measures in March 2020 to restrict the spread of the virus, large segments of the economy shutdown causing gross domestic product (GDP) to contract 9.03% in the second quarter relative to the previous year.1 The contraction was so severe that a recession was declared for March and April 2020.2 As states began to relax restrictions, the decline in GDP tapered but remained negative in both the third (-2.8%) and fourth quarter (-2.4%).
This is a snapshot of the U.S. Seafood Industry and For-Hire Sector Impacts from COVID-19: 2020 in Perspective report highlighting the effects of COVID-19 on the seafood industry (commercial harvesters, aquaculture, seafood dealers and processors) and for-hire fishing sector for 2020. The impacts to the seafood industry and for-hire sector were immediate, more severe and more long-lasting than those incurred in most other sectors of the economy. A rigorous empirical analysis of commercial fishing operations and seafood business confirms that the seafood sector contributed to the overall recession and, further, that the sector experienced a significant sustained contraction beginning in 2019 Quarter 1 through 2020 Quarter 2. This points to earlier weakness in this sector prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had not previously been identified.
- Commercial landings revenue, which averaged $5.7 billion annually from 2015-2019 (the baseline period), fell 22% in 2020 relative to the baseline.3 Landings revenue fell 34% in the second quarter relative to the baseline; revenues in the third and fourth quarter fell 25% and 15%, respectively.4
- Regionally, commercial landings revenue losses in 2020 relative to the baseline ranged from 12% in the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species (HMS) fishery and 16% in the Northeast to 26% and 31%, respectively, in Alaska and Hawaii.
- Nationally, commercial landings revenue declined 19% in March and sustained monthly losses ranging from 32% to 38% from April through July. Monthly losses relative to the baseline tapered somewhat in August and September (down 24% overall); declined 8% in October but averaged a 22% monthly loss in November and December. The largest monthly decline occurred in July, largely driven by declines in Alaska landings revenue.
Landings revenue of high-value species (e.g., tunas, halibut, sablefish, lobster, sea scallops, Dungeness crab, salmon, snappers and black sea bass) that typically rely on strong restaurant demand for fresh seafood here and abroad generally fell 20% to 65% relative to baseline values due to restaurant closures and reduced exports.
- All of the regional assessments reflect substantial losses in the majority of their fisheries. Two recent surveys by NOAA Fisheries of Northeast and Southeast commercial fishermen and a third survey by Ocean Strategies of West Coast and Alaska fishermen underscores this point. Findings from these surveys indicate that between 87% and 95% of the commercial fishermen surveyed had reduced landings revenues and, further, that these fishermen incurred losses ranging from 43% to 49%. Losses in Puerto Rico and USVI were greater, with impacted fishermen in Puerto Rico and the USVI reporting losses of 65% and 55%, respectively. These losses directly impacted employment with 17% to 35% of commercial fishing operations reporting a reduction in employees.
- Declines in domestic landings revenue in 2020 relative to the baseline period were on par with losses experienced by foreign fleets. In Europe, a study of eight European Union member states found that landings revenue declined between 0.3% (Denmark) to over 40% (Sweden and Bulgaria) from 2019 to 2020 for an average loss of 26%. Denmark benefitted from two of its key fisheries – herring and mackerel – being in low season from March to May, the period when impacts were highest. As in the U.S., high-value species in Australia incurred substantial losses due to disruptions in global markets (17% of high-value species are exported) and social distancing measures that closed restaurants.
- Commercial fishermen benefitted from lower fuel prices in 2020. Fuel prices declined 17% relative to 2019; for the period March to December, fuel prices declined 20%.
- To better isolate and understand the impact of COVID-19 from other ongoing economic trends and seasonal fluctuations during 2020, for the first time ever, NOAA Fisheries conducted a large-scale sectoral assessment of the seafood industry using an approach that mirrors the approach taken by economists to assess the status of the U.S. economy, i.e., whether it is experiencing a recession, an economic recovery, etc.
- NOAA Fisheries identified a significant and sustained contraction5 in the commercial fishing sector beginning from the first quarter of 2019 (2019 Q1) through 2020 Q2. Seasonally adjusted quarterly total U.S. ex-vessel revenue fell by 27% ($346 million) over this period, from a peak of $1.3 billion to a low of $953 million (Figure X).
- The seafood dealer/processor sector also experienced a sustained contraction but it was of shorter duration than that experienced by the commercial fishing sector. Beginning 2019 Q3 through 2020 Q2, seafood dealers and processors sustained a decline in value added of $598 million, a 13.47% decline. A careful examination of the data revealed seafood imports helped to cushion the impact of the economic downturn in the domestic harvest sector. However, in those regions with limited imports such as Alaska, impacts to the harvest sector directly translated into losses to the seafood dealers and processors.
The aquaculture industry also continued to struggle despite the incremental re-opening of restaurants beginning in May 2020. A series of industry surveys conducted by Virginia Tech found that the highest impacts were incurred during the first quarter but that the industry continued to be severely impacted throughout the year. For example, while 90% of respondents indicated that they had been impacted by COVID-19 during Q1, on average 83% of respondents indicated that they had been impacted in subsequent quarters in 2020. Further, while 80% reported cancelled contracts in Q1, 44% of respondents reported cancelled contracts for the remainder of the year. The number of respondents reporting laying off employees ranged from a peak of 38% in Q1 to 22% in Q4.
Retail sales of seafood increased sharply beginning in May 2020, as restaurants restrictions and social distancing measures persisted. Relative to 2019, seafood sales from these outlets were on average up 46% in May through July 2020. Sales remained high – though not as high - for the remainder of the year (up 31% in August, with successive months slightly lower to end the year up 24% in December.6
A recent study by FMI – The Food Industry Association found that the seafood retail sales increased significantly in 2020 across all seafood categories: frozen, up 36%; fresh, up 25%; and grocery (canned, pouches, etc.), up 21%. In total, seafood generated more than $16.6 billion in sales for food retailers in 2020.7 Nearly identical results were found by 210 Analytics.8 The FMI study also found that 1 in 3 people consumed seafood frequently in 2020 (up from 25% in 2019) and that 44% of seafood purchases were made online (up from 19% in 2019).
Seafood Dealers and Processors
In contrast to seafood retail sales, a 2021 study presented as part of the National Fisheries Institute Global Seafood Market Conference found that foodservice seafood sales declined sharply in 2020. Foodservice sales fell 40% in the first quarter of COVID-19 (March - May 2020) relative to average sales in the three preceding quarters. Mollusks (e.g., scallops, oysters, mussels) incurred the highest losses (down 60%). For the period March to December 2020, sales were done 21% relative to average sales in the three preceding quarters.9
Seafood exports declined 23% in 2020 when compared to the baseline. All regions experienced decreases in export values, with the exception of the Pacific Islands. Export values from the Pacific Islands declined in the first half of the year but then increased during the second half of the year. Regionally important species – pollock, cod, lobster, scallops, crab, shrimp and wild and farmed salmon – experienced overall declines in export values.
Seafood imports in 2020 were relatively flat compared to the baseline, declining just under 1%. Imports of fresh and frozen product declined by 7% and less than one half percent, respectively. Imports values of tuna in cans and pouches increased by 38% in 2020.
Disruptions in global markets coupled with largely declining domestic harvests has significantly impacted seafood businesses. Regions reporting the number of active seafood dealers reported a decline in active dealers ranging from 9% to 21%. In addition, preliminary results of seafood dealer/processor surveys conducted in the Northeast and Southeast regions found that 78% and 85% of dealer/processors in the Northeast and Southeast, respectively, reported reduced sales during 2020. Losses to these firms averaged 45% in the Northeast and 46% in the Southeast. A similar survey conducted by the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council found that 86% of dealer/processors experienced revenue losses during May and June, with losses averaging 43%. A shortage of cold storage facilities continues to be an issue in some regions. Some industry participants have pivoted to direct sales from vessels or from wholesale to retail to offset losses.
- All industry sectors experienced increased costs from actions taken to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 including testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and safety precautions and protocols (e.g., quarantining workers, increased cost of transporting workers, socially distancing workers) and, in some cases, dealing with closures related to poor sales or COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Across the nation, for-hire fishing is very popular with saltwater anglers and is an economically important part of fishing-based communities. From 2015 to 2019, there were over 3.6 million for-hire angler fishing trips on average each year.11 In 2020, the various restrictions on the for-hire fishing industry due to COVID-19 were widespread and resulted in the number of for-hire trips falling to 3 million trips in 2020, a 17.7% decline.
- 2020 started very positively for the for-hire industry, with the number of trips up 19% in January and February relative to the baseline period. However, the same protective measures that shuttered restaurants also applied to charter fishing operations, causing this sector to completely shut down in most coastal states beginning in mid-March, with phased re-openings starting in May. Overall, the number of trips in March and April fell 73% relative to the baseline; as states began to lift restrictions, the situation improved but trips were still down 30% during May/June. During June/July, the peak season for for-hire fishing, the number of fishing trips fell from the annual average of 1.3 million trips to 1.1 million trips, a decrease of 11%. In September/October and November/December, the number of for-hire fishing trips increased 12% and 8%, respectively.
The effect of COVID-19 restrictions on the for-hire sector varied across regions. In the Southeast, the number of for-hire angler-trips decreased 5% due to relatively fewer and/or shorter restrictions. In contrast, the for-hire sectors in Alaska and Hawaii, which rely heavily on non-resident tourists for a large share of their customers, experienced a 48.6% and 73% decrease in trips relative to the five-year baseline. In the Northeast, for-hire trips decreased 27% in 2020 relative to the five-year baseline while West Coast for-hire trips decreased 31%, with California, Oregon and Washington experiencing a 17%, 23% and 38% decrease, respectively, relative to the baseline.
In-Depth Look at Regional Commercial Fisheries Trends
Relative to their respective baseline periods, regional landings revenue since March 2020 are down 21% to 36% (Northeast and Atlantic HMS, -21%; Southeast, -27%; Alaska and West Coast, -29%; and Hawaiʻi, -36%). Depressed market conditions existed in all regions, with the timing of impacts varying across regions and fisheries. No region posted an increase in monthly landings revenue relative to the baseline until October 2020: the Northeast posted a 4% increase in landings revenue in October 2020 and the Atlantic HMS fishery posted a 21% increase in landings revenue in November 2020.
For the year, 2020 Alaska landings revenue was down 26% ($511 million; 2020 $) relative to the baseline.
- Alaska landings revenue declined 13% in March and continued to lose ground month over month throughout the spring, declining 21% in April; 26% in May; and 48% in June. Landings revenue was down 41% in July relative to the baseline but was not as sharply down in August through October (-15%), as some fisheries were able to move effort to later in the season. Landings revenues were down 35% and 57%, respectively, in November and December.
- Fisheries losses were wide- spread. Among those species incurring the largest revenue losses relative to the baseline, herring was down 79%; the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands Pacific cod shoreside and at-sea sector were down 42% and 47%, respectively; halibut was down 41%; and salmon landings revenue declined 41%.
- Other species experiencing sizable revenue losses were sablefish (15% lower) and pollock shoreside and at-sea sectors (down 7% and 10%, respectively). Flatfish landings revenue were relatively flat compared to the baseline, declining by 3% while rockfish revenues increased 7%.
Landings revenue fell 24% ($227 million; 2020 $) in 2020 relative to the average annual landings revenue from 2015 to 2019.
- On the West Coast, landings revenue declines for March through October fluctuated between 19% and 29% relative to the baseline average, with the largest monthly decline occurring in March. Landings revenues in November and December were down 58% and 57%, respectively.
- Comparisons of 2020 landings revenue to the baseline period vary across states. In California, the fisheries that contributed most to ex-vessel revenue were crab, market squid, selected other species. Total ex-vessel revenue in 2020 was 29% lower than the baseline median and 31% lower for March through December. In Oregon, the fisheries that contributed most to ex-vessel revenue were crab, shrimp and shoreside Pacific whiting. Total ex-vessel revenue in 2020 was 6% lower relative to the baseline median and was 21% lower from March through December. In Washington, the fisheries that contributed most to ex-vessel revenue were crab, tuna and Puget Sound fisheries. Total ex-vessel revenue in Washington in 2020 was 26% lower than the baseline median and 29% lower from March through December.
- Non-whiting groundfish were among the species experiencing the highest revenue losses relative to the baseline median. The non-whiting IFQ bottom trawl fishery experienced a 52% decrease in revenue and the fixed gear sablefish fishery experienced a 44% decrease. Other species experiencing sizable revenue losses were shrimp (18%), market squid (20%), Dungeness crab (15%), and tuna (15%).
In the Northeast, landings revenue declined 16% ($289 million; 2020 $) relative to average annual landings revenue from 2015 to 2019.
- Landings revenue declined 19% in March and dropped even more sharply in April and May (-47% and -45%, respectively). The average monthly decline in landings revenue for June through September was 17% while quarter 4 (October through December) experienced only a modest decline in landings revenue (-3%) relative to the baseline.
- Landings revenue of the lobster and scallop fisheries, which combined accounted for 64% of Northeast landings revenue in the baseline period, experienced the largest losses in 2020. In absolute terms: lobster revenues decreased $146 million (-22%) and scallop revenues decreased $54 million (-10%).12 Lower prices contributed to lower revenues for both species. Lobster prices fell 40% in March 2020 to $4.82 per pound from an average of $7.99 per pound during March 2015 – 2019. Prices continued to fall through July but since August remained above the baseline price through December. Scallop prices were also above baseline beginning in October, ending the year almost 19% higher than the baseline average price.
- Average prices for monkfish, groundfish, summer flounder, scup and black sea bass remained below the baseline for all of 2020. For groundfish, summer flounder, scup, black sea bass and squid, higher landings in 2020 relative to the baseline could not offset the lower prices resulting in revenue declines for all species. In contrast, the surfclam and ocean quahog prices remained at or slightly above baseline prices, however, landings were down 31% resulting in a revenue loss of $16.5 million.
In 2020, landings revenue declined 25% ($265 million, 2020 $) relative to the baseline.
- Landings revenue in the Southeast fisheries was down 26% in March before declining more sharply in April and May (down 44% and 42%, respectively, relative to the baseline. For the remainder of the year, the average monthly decline in landings revenue was 23%, with monthly losses ranging from 17% (June) to 36% (August).
- Among the species experiencing the highest revenue losses relative to the baseline were: deepsea golden crab (-65%); dolphin-wahoo (-57%) Caribbean spiny lobster (-44%) and Eastern oysters (-42%). Shrimp, the fishery with the highest landings revenue in both the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic, experienced an 18% loss in revenue due to a decrease in landings (prices were flat relative to the baseline). Caribbean spiny lobster and stone crab experienced the largest price declines relative to 2019, which were likely influenced by a decline in exports.
- Landings revenue trends in the Gulf of Mexico reef fish fishery varied depending upon whether a species was managed under an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program or not. Those species not managed under an IFQ program incurred a 40% decrease in landings revenue while the IFQ species only incurred a 9% decrease. An analysis of landings trends suggests that fishermen postponed their harvest of IFQ species until later in the year when COVID-19 social distancing measures were less restrictive.
In Hawaii, commercial fisheries landings revenue declined 31% ($38 million; 2020 $) in 2020 relative to the baseline, with a sharp decline in tourism (down 87% relative to 2019) and restaurant operating restrictions depressing local demand.
- To balance supply with local demand (and reduce the downward pressure on prices from falling demand), the industry self-imposed vessel-level and daily landings restrictions through June. Hawaiʻi landings revenue experienced its highest losses in March and April (down 50%) relative to the baseline; monthly losses remained above 30% from May to September, with losses averaging 37% during this period. Landings revenue declined 24% relative to the baseline during Quarter 4.
- Similar to Hawaiʻi, travel restrictions and sharp declines in tourism have had significant impacts on island economies and communities across the Pacific Islands Region, including American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The StarKist Samoa cannery in American Samoa has been operating at full capacity, and while fish supply has remained steady given contributions from U.S. and foreign vessels, keeping up with demand has been challenging and the cannery has faced numerous challenges due to COVID-19 restrictions.
- The purse seine fishery offloaded 10% fewer pounds and prices were down just over 8% relative to the baseline in American Samoa. The American Samoa longline fishery revenue and landings were down 60% relative to the baseline, while revenues in other commercial fisheries in American Samoa were down 37% relative to the baseline.
- Commercial fisheries in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands experienced revenue decline of 51% and 19%, respectively, relative to the baseline.
The Atlantic HMS fishery posted a12% ($4 million; 2020 $) decline in landings revenue in 2020 relative to 2019.
- In March, landings revenue in this fishery was relatively flat compared to 2019 but experienced the largest one month decline for all regions in April (down 66%). Landings revenue remained sharply down in May (down 36%) but averaged a 15% decline in monthly landings revenue from June through October. Landings revenue posted a 21% increase in November 2020 relative to 2019 and closed out the year with 8% decline in landings revenue in December.
- Bluefin tuna landings revenue experienced the largest losses relative to 2019 with revenue declining 69% in April and 88% in May followed by a 46% and 51% decline in June and July, respectively; landings revenue was also down substantially in October (50%).
In-Depth Look at Regional For-hire Trends
The effect of COVID-19 restrictions on the for-hire sector varied across regions and over time within a region.
- Total for-hire trips decreased in 5 out of 6 bi-monthly periods compared to the average annual number of trips from the 2015-2019 baseline (baseline). This region was affected by COVID-19 outbreaks earlier in 2020 than some other areas, which resulted in some significant impacts in March and April. The number of for-hire angler trips in this region fell 97% from the baseline average of about 26,700 to 714 during this time. Trip numbers rebounded somewhat between May and August, but were still below average. September and October had a 10% increase in trips compared to the baseline before decreasing slightly for the remainder of the year. NOAA Fisheries conducted a survey to find out how for-hire operators were impacted by COVID-19. Results showed that on average, for-hire businesses in this region operated at 56% capacity in 2020 compared to 2019.
- In the Southeast (North Carolina to Louisiana), the number of for-hire angler-trips was 1.7 million on average from 2015 to 2019. In 2020 there was a slight decrease (5%) to 1.6 million trips. The states of the Southeast did not have as many restrictions in general, or for as long, as some of the states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions which resulted in less of an overall decrease in trips for 2020 compared to the baseline. According to the NOAA Fisheries survey, eighty-eight percent (88%) of affected party/charter/for-hire businesses stopped taking fishing trips for some period of time in 2020. However, the majority (60%) responded that they stopped taking trips for 3 months or less.
- Along the West Coast, for-hire angler-trips in Washington decreased by 38% in 2020 compared to the years 2015 to 2019. The number of trips in Oregon were 23% lower in 2020 compared to the baseline, and 17% lower in California.
Alaska and Hawaii
- In Alaska and Hawaii, for-hire operations were significantly affected due to COVID-19, in large part because non-resident tourists account for a large share of their customers. Given that travel by non-residents was severely restricted in 2020 to both of these states, the impact on the for-hire operations was particularly large compared to other regions of the country.
- The number of charter fishing trips taken in 2020 was only 48.6% of those taken in the baseline period (2015-2019). A survey of Alaskan for-hire operators regarding COVID-19 impacts indicated that 17% of the businesses closed for the fishing season in 2020 (May to September).
- Due to numerous restrictions affecting tourism and local activities (e.g., stay-at-home orders, visitor quarantine mandates, and temporary suspension of harbor operations and commercial ocean activities), the number of for-hire trips in 2020 was 73% less than the baseline average from 2015 to 2019. When looking at the data for April to December (when restrictions really set in), the number of trips were down 90% in 2020 relative to the baseline.
Full Report of 2020 COVID-19 Impacts
1Bureau of Economic Analysis. "Table 1.1.6. Real Gross Domestic Product, Chained Dollars. Last Revised May 27, 2021. https://apps.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?reqid=19&step=2#reqid=19&step=2&isuri=1&1921=survey
3The baseline period for Atlantic HMS is 2019. See regional chapters for additional data information on data and data sources.
4West Coast at-sea processor and shellfish monthly revenues were not available when this summary was prepared.
5 This analysis defines a two consecutive quarter decline in economic activity as a period of sustained contraction, and it will identify these periods over the 2015-2020 period for the U.S. seafood sector.
6 From IRI Consumer Purchased Good index available at https://indices.iriworldwide.com/COVID19/?i=0
9 National Fisheries Institute. Global Seafood Market Conference. 2021. Bi-Valve Panel. April 7, 2021.
102021. McKinley Research Group for Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. 2020 COVID-19 Impacts Processor Survey. https://www.alaskaseafood.org/wp-content/uploads/ASMI-COVID-19-Impacts-Processor-Survey-2020-Final.pdf
11 Data includes all coastal states except Texas (comparable 2 month data unavailable).
12 The scallop fishery also faced a decrease in their total allowable catch in 2020. Taking this into account, it is estimated that landings revenue decreased 18% through December of the 2020 scallop fishing year relative to the baseline period.