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Tuna fisheries, canneries struggle as demand for canned protein skyrockets amid lockdown restrictions

Tuna may not be the first thing to pop into your head when you ponder over the damages caused by the coronavirus, yet it has brought with it an urgency to organize global fisheries in a more sustainable way
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Among the adverse ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, due to the negative impact, the global economy has inadvertently slipped into recession. While it is obvious with the mass business shutdown and the loss of employment that the economy has taken a hit, it is still much too early to know the full extent of the damage. However, in the last couple of weeks, experts have likened it to the Great Depression that devastated the economy in the 1930s and said the crisis will be of biblical proportions.

The pandemic is more or less a turning point in human history corresponding with the bubonic plague (1342) and the Spanish flu (1918) that claimed millions of lives.

Among the various industries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, PEW Trusts has reported that the global tuna fishing industry is facing major consequences after speaking with experts. Several conferences and expos adhering to seafood and aquaculture have either been canceled or postponed. and The saltwater fish species is global cultural, economical, and ecological notability and is hence managed sustainably.

Tuna may not be the first thing to pop into your head when you ponder over the damages caused by the coronavirus, yet it has brought with it an urgency to organize global fisheries in a more sustainable way.

The coronavirus will be a geostrategic gamechanger in tuna fisheries, per Tuna Wars. When the pandemic first broke out in Wuhan, China, its origin was traced back to the seafood markets in the country, which was a cause for major concern. And now, the Chinese leaders have realized that it needs to put in efforts into stabilizing tuna fisheries, enough to start making it a priority in the country's political agenda.

Global tuna fisheries are estimated to make $42 billion annually, per Shana Miller, the project manager of the Global Tuna Conservation Project, The Ocean Foundation to PEW Trusts.

(Getty Images)

David Schalit, a commercial fisher and the president of the American Bluefin Tuna Association told PEW Trusts that, with the pandemic having occurred in between the seasons for US East Coast Bluefin Fishery, he has been closely monitoring the situation in order to make preliminary observations. "Generally, global demand for bluefin is expected to be dramatically reduced during the pandemic. However, given that most bluefin is wild-caught and fattened in ranches, these farms have the possibility to sustain lower sales by maintaining their fish in inventory. In order to do this, they will have to increase their pen capacity to hold 2020 catch", said Schalit.

He relates it to not only the bluefin but either species of tuna such as the yellowfin and bigeye tuna.  

Moreover, he said that in the US, it is likely that "high-end" supermarkets will experience limited tuna sales. "Atlantic bluefin is a sort of “luxury” product in the US because it is fresh and it is caught in the wild, by hand, one fish at a time. At the moment, this market doesn’t exist for our bluefin," he added, comparing the endangered species of tuna, to those in his fishery. On the other hand, he thinks that supermarkets selling sushi will approach them for their catch. "Most urban and suburban supermarkets possess an open refrigerated case for selling chilled “maki” rolls and sushi, packed as individual portions in small plastic containers. We expect that this market, which is only interested in the dark red color of the tuna used and less interested in the fat and oil content, may be able to absorb some of our catch, but the price will be quite low," he said. 

Sushi from yellowfin, or maguro, tuna lies on a customer's plate at a sushi restaurant (Getty Images)

In times of war and crisis, tuna is readily available on the shelves of local grocery stores and is a healthy, storable source of protein. At the onset of the pandemic, with the lockdown measures being imposed, Europe and the US saw a spike in tuna sales as panicked costumers began stockpiling essentials. Korean-owned StarKist Tuna, the largest supplier in the US market, has accelerated production at its American Samoa processing plant.

Italy and Spain, the two EU countries worst affected by the pandemic, are also the largest canning industries comprising the European market. However, the industry has assured that there won't be a shortage of canned tuna anytime soon. The Spanish seafood canners association Anfaco Cecopesca will meet the growing demands for canned tuna according to the association's president, Juan Manuel Vieites.

With the lockdown measure of both these countries in place, the plants have not experienced closure. Instead, they continue production with workers practicing the social distancing guidelines and sanitation measures, while getting their temperature checked regularly. Even if the governments are gearing up to close these plants, the indispensable need for canned tuna has kept it going amid the crisis. 

(Getty Images)

However, a concern for the canneries is the availability of the raw material with the travel restrictions in place. Seiner crews and observers for tuna fishing boats in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean are facing a challenge due to the same, and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission has withdrawn its observers from seiners. Madang in Papua New Guinea, which is a hotspot for the landing of tuna, has closed tuna vessels and there's a possibility more ports will follow suit. 

Furthermore, tuna transport in Southeast Asia that is prominent for its abundant supply of precooked tuna loins and whole tunas has been heavily impacted. There has been a colossal congestion o transport in the Chinese ports and a severe shortage in refrigeration containers to carry the tuna, due to the coronavirus. this has in turn posed as an obstacle for refers or boats that collect the tuna to offload their catch, and they have been stuck in the sports unable to go out to sea for new catch.