COVID-19 and fishing – the opportunity amidst the threat


  • COVID-19’s economic impact is leaving few livelihoods untouched. Lockdown restrictions have grounded fishing communities on shore without access to both the income and nutrition that fishing brings. 
  • Unfortunately, the same lockdown conditions that restrict some encourages others to fish illegally. Perceptions of diverted and low capacity to monitor and enforce regulations fuel this; however, innovative space technology is enabling monitoring to take place remotely.
  • Supported by the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme (IPP), Project Verumar combines complex remote sensing datasets, advanced machine learning, experienced fisheries analysts and compliance experts to provide the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries & Agriculture (DA-BFAR) with an innovative new tool to enhance existing monitoring capabilities.

Fisheries worldwide are still attempting to take stock of the reality of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, though it soon became apparent quite how hard they had been hit once the virus took hold.

According to Global Fishing Watch, global commercial fishing activity fell by around 1 million hours in the first four months of 2020 – a 6.5% year-on-year decline over the two previous years – as retail closures and supply chain disruption choked commercial demand. In March 2020, the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations called the pandemic “the biggest crisis to hit the fishing industry ever”. In India, in May 2020, the fishing community was said to be ‘crushed’ when they were forced to anchor their boats during lockdown measures that lasted for the best part of two months – just before the annual monsoon shutdown.

As well as hurting those that rely heavily on fish for essential protein and economic stability, these impacts can weigh especially heavily on women, who are an essential but often under-recognised element of fishing communities. In Mumbai, for example, it is estimated that 20,000 women sell fish in the city to support their families. One fisherwoman there commented: “We used to earn about Rs 1,000 (£10.50) per day, but now we are doing some odd jobs to survive as the fishing activity has almost stopped.”

Even more telling, Ivorian women fisherfolk felt compelled to point out that COVID-19-related damage was reaching the point where it threatened to “affect the long-term prospects for the country’s food security.” No idle comment.

Bouncing back

The pandemic has certainly provided an unavoidable opportunity to highlight the importance of fisheries within all affected domestic and export markets, leading in some cases to greater immediate investment.

To help the industry back on its feet, the Indian Government responded in May 2020 with an emergency financial package of more than £2bn. Far from just looking to apply a sticking plaster, Officials hope it will create jobs for 55 million people across the supply chain, doubling India’s fisheries export value. In September, the Indian Ministry of Fisheries put in further measures to ‘empower women in fisheries’. However, this has been criticised by the Traditional Fish Workers’ Union and the issue remains live as women fishworkers struggle with rising debts.

By October, Pacific Island governments and development organisations were working together to address the issues being faced with one emergent strategy for sustainability being to encourage more households to take up aquaculture and establish fish farms.

Fishing in the shadows

While the situation is undoubtedly extremely damaging for the vast majority of the fishing community, there is one group that may stand to benefit – illegal fishers. The larger commercial fleets are not constrained by movement restrictions closer to shore as they can stay at sea for much longer periods and simply freeze what they catch. The worry has been that those who choose to conduct illegal, unregulated or unreported fishing (IUUF) may be further emboldened by the perception that monitoring and enforcement controls have been overlooked as the pandemic has taken hold.

This was certainly in the thoughts of the Director General of Marine and Fisheries Resources at Indonesia’s fisheries ministry, who commented that fishers were taking advantage of a perceived drop in enforcement amid the COVID-19 crisis to operate illegally in Indonesian waters. Indonesian authorities seized at least 19 foreign fishing boats in March and April, and also commented that they had noted an increase in destructive fishing practices. Such concerns have been replicated across Southeast Asia, the undoubted focal point of the commercial fishing world.

Further afield, in September 2020, fisheries expert Francisco Blaha highlighted that the COVID-19-related pressure on fisheries inspection regimes was also likely having a detrimental effect on the ability to counter IUUF. With independent observers not able to undertake inspections, the likelihood increases of the licensed fleet illegally misreporting and underreporting actual catch – a huge problem worldwide.

Necessity can of course be the mother of invention and many innovative approaches and in many cases a renewed sense of urgency to counter IUUF have been emerging. The Thai Navy announced its intention to deploy an Orbiter 3 Small Tactical UAV – which has an operational range of 50 nautical miles – to support IUUF search operations in the Andaman Sea.

Redoubling efforts

A truly energetic range of responses have also been witnessed in the Philippines, where fishing activities were exempted from the quarantine period in order to ensure a continuous supply of fisheries products to the domestic market. A partial lockdown in early September in GenSen fishport only lasted four days resuming full operation with stricter monitoring and enforcement of control measures. 

The country’s DA-BFAR was vocal throughout in its insistence that it was ‘business as usual’ in respect of the monitoring, control, and surveillance of illegal fishing. A Philippine Navy patrol apprehended six fishermen in three boats conducting illegal blast fishing activities (killing fish with home-made dynamite devices). A commercial fishing vessel was caught illegally fishing in municipal waters by a joint DA-BFAR and Philippine Navy exercise in the waters off La Union waters in the northern part of the archipelago. A further 51 fishermen were apprehended by DA-BFAR for the same offence in the municipal waters of Bulacan.

Non-governmental protection efforts also remained strong. Community-based marine biodiversity conservation partnerships in Northern Palawan, Oriental Mindoro and Batangas City redoubled efforts to protect their local ecosystems from illegal fishing. Representatives of the dive industry even chipped in. With dive shops on lockdown, a collection of them used their boats to bolster local patrols – leading to at least two arrests of fishermen operating illegally in protected areas.

Ensuring that the potential scourge of illegal fishing is widely understood by stakeholders and the general public is also of great importance. A joint DA-BFAR and USAID online conference in early September 2020 hammered that point home by sharing key statistics on the IUUF issue. DA-BFAR National Director and Undersecretary for Fisheries Eduardo Gongona also took the opportunity to underline how the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted just how important protecting fish stocks and ther habitats from IUUF is to ensuring the nation’s food security.

Many similar efforts and successes were reported, at the same time as DA-BFAR is thinking more ambitiously about how it can extend its ability to monitor a seaspace that it seven times larger than its already considerable land mass. No amount of sea patrols and community efforts can possibly cover such a vast area so – to complement its existing roll-out of vessel monitoring systems and its recently introduced integrated digital fisheries management system – the Bureau is preparing to launch a new partnership that looks to harness space assets in the fight against illegal fishing.

Nowhere to hide

Part-funded by the UK Space Agency’s IPP, a consortium of marine and satellite experts are working with DA-BFAR partners to extend the range of remote sensing capabilities available to the Philippines.

Project Verumar[LINK TO NEW WEBSITE CARL] combines complex remote sensing datasets; advanced machine learning and other computational analysis; highly experienced fisheries analysts and compliance experts; and in-depth local engagement, to provide the Bureau with an innovative new tool to enhance and help to target all existing capabilities.

Large amounts of data such as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Automatic Identification System (AIS) are ingested and analysed to provide new levels of cost-effective surveillance across the Philippine archipelago. Analysing space data allows for detailed threat modelling; vessels of interest can be tracked more effectively; ‘dark’ vessels – those who turn off their AIS so as not to be ‘seen’ – can be identified by cross-referring satellite imagery on fishing tracks; and heatmaps of suspicious activity can drive better targeting of patrol assets. There is nowhere for marine criminals to hide in the age of satellite-enabled Earth Observation and powerful machine learning.

Verumar Project Director Lee Hardy said: “The Philippines has a coastline of 35,000 nautical miles – the fifth longest in the world. This marine resource provides the country with many opportunities but also many maritime concerns, illegal fishing being one of them. A system of intelligent remote sensing enables enables appropriate agencies to maximise and extend their existing monitoring, control and surveillance activities, to successfully tackle the scourge of illegal fishing in order to protect Mother Nature’s precious resource.”