Bringing the Ocean to Society
27 May 2020
The Baltic Blue Bioeconomy and COVID-19
EurOcean Member SUBMARINER Network reports on the effects of the pandemic up north.

Throughout the world, Blue Bioeconomy sectors are being severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and many actors are finding inspiring ways to deal with the consequences it poses, both now and in the future.

The economic crisis catapulted by COVID-19 has serious effects on the Blue Bioeconomy and the Baltic is no exception, with challenges faced on ships, farms, laboratories, markets, factories, offices and so on. Although it may be argued that the marine environment has perhaps been given some room to breathe with reduced fishing and marine transport activities and wild marine populations may reap temporary benefits from this, the disrupting impacts of COVID-19 on the Baltic Blue Bioeconomy supply chains are serious.

Impacts of measures

In the Baltic, small businesses and local producers are suffering from the effects of restaurant and market closures as well as restricted export markets, as travel restrictions, social distancing and quarantine measures are keeping workers and consumers at home and are forcing producers to find alternative markets. Farmers are struggling with sales and distribution barriers; lockdowns and social distancing measures are making it difficult for consumers to make their way to (super)markets; and generally production is slowing down. Aquaculture, mussel and seaweed farmers are facing losses in sales and are having to consider shutdowns in production, entailing risks to the viability of their businesses. Although the European Food and Safety Authority has made it abundantly clear that the virus is not transmittable through food or food packaging; fresh food sales, including seafood, have been decreasing across Europe. Even where the transport of products is possible, the quality may suffer, due to travel and trade restrictions.

The case of aquaculture in Sweden

As transport and storage logistics of fisheries and aquaculture products are becoming increasingly challenging, local support networks are proving crucial, as creative ways to support local producers with preserving their livelihoods are being sought across the Baltic. In Sweden, many fish farms now have cages of ready-to-sell fish, which cannot be sold since hotels and restaurants have cancelled their contracts. On Åland, fish processing companies can no longer transport fish since ferries have been discontinued.

The question is now, what to do with these fish (arctic char and trout): processing them into fish meal or slaughtering them? Caged fish are growing and cannot be kept in the cages without breaking the requirements of laws and permits. There are also juvenile fish in land-based tanks waiting to be set out, and if they cannot be let out in the cages, there will be no production for next year.

This poses a crisis for aquaculture companies as well as other food production enterprises. Even though opportunities are being explored regarding international export, this also poses challenges regarding transport requirements across borders, as well as obvious challenges with preservation (requiring tons of ice to keep the fish fresh). Although theoretically, borders are not closed in Europe for the transport of goods, there are hardly any flights and ferries. Thus, in reality, there is no possibility to transport this fish in the short timeframe required to guarantee sufficient quality of the fish. Other countries have locked down transport completely, or are doing very thorough checks, hereby delaying trade significantly.

The Swedish Board of Agriculture and the Rural Network have therefore been in touch with Swedish municipalities, schools and public kitchens to see if they are interested in buying aquaculture products directly, taking at least advantage of the fact that prices have now dropped due to the cancelled hotel and restaurant contracts. Some municipalities and producers have expressed interest in making this a reality, and solutions are being explored regarding freezing and storing fish. Three Swedish organisations are currently looking to set up a project to increase self-sufficiency in the Swedish aquaculture sector.

On a positive note, the sales of a Danish company (more information in Danish) that delivers fresh fish weekly to consumers, have already gone up due to COVID-19.

European responses

The European Commission has set up the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) to help the Member States fund their coronavirus crisis response. A package of measures is available to support the agri- and food sectors and national funding schemes have been approved, recognising the crucial role of these sectors in ensuring food security in the EU. For example, state aid for Latvia has been approved through a €35.5 million direct grant scheme to support the agriculture, fishery and food sectors, promising up to €120.000 to companies active in the fishery and aquaculture sector. Similar approved schemes exist for other countries in the Baltic Sea Region. European support measures include ‘direct support to farmers, fishers and other beneficiaries; flexibility in the use of unspent funds under the Common Agricultural Policy and the European Maritime Fisheries Fund; as well as the establishment of ‘green lanes’ that allow the flow of food across Europe; recognising seasonal workers as ‘critical workers’ to ensure continuity in the agri-food sector; and granting aid for storage of products; and simplifying some administrative procedures in its programmes’.

Original news article on SUBMARINER's website