We found that already vulnerable small-scale fishers and the industries and communities that depend on them (e.g., fishers and traders) were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as both the total catch weight and the price per kilogram of fish declined resulting in large decreases in total catch value after the onset of the pandemic. Although catch weight and value fluctuated throughout the year, post-pandemic weight and value declined along a negative trajectory beyond that associated with interannual variations. The declines in total catch weight and price per kilogram were likely triggered by a closure in access to global markets resulting in collapse in demand11,24 and restrictions in access to local markets, associated with travel bans, port closures, including those in Southeast Sulawesi, and lockdown regulations that prevented fishers from fishing and trading. Our interviews with fishers and fish traders on their perceptions of the causes of disruption and their coping strategies revealed that both fishers and fish traders believe that reduced demand for fish from other traders up the supply chain and decline in fish prices, were the main causes of disruption to their livelihood. To adapt to these disruptions, most fishers and traders reported that continuing in their existing occupation of fishing and trading was their principal strategy, despite lower demand and receiving lower prices for catches. However, we observed a decline in the number of fishers and traders recording catch through the OurFish app, which was likely caused by the reduced demand from traders and closure of fishing port trading centres in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic announcement.
The sharp decline in total catch and total value that occurred in March could in part be explained by an overall decline in price per kilogram of fisheries products, as demand declined with the temporary closure of restaurants and retail shops, impacting the trade in fish across the country. Fish landed at large ports being kept in cold storage as local markets were over supplied and export markets shut16, there was likely limited space or access to these facilities for fish supplied by small scale fishing communities. We show that price per kilogram declined for regionally and internationally traded fisheries including grouper, octopus and snapper highlighting the vulnerability of small-scale fisheries to exogenous shocks to trade13. Octopus and live grouper were heavily impacted with live grouper trade ceasing all together by April. Both products are commonly exported to Italy, China and Taiwan. Conversely, the prices for domestically traded fish including trevally, emperor, bream, and parrotfish appear to have suffered little overall decline over the post pandemic period. Such trends could be due to government efforts to stabilize domestic fisheries value and income, through various financial and non-financial incentives to boost local consumption, including the direct purchasing of fish from fishers and traders, for supply into local markets25.
Our interviews with fishers and traders on their perceptions of the causes of disruption and coping strategies supported findings from Ourfish records that showed a decline in total catch and sale prices in the month after the pandemic announcement. A high proportion of fishers and traders (40% and 80%, respectively) believed that low demand from traders was impacting fish trade, suggesting that disruptions to supply chains were caused by the inability of traders to sell fish, and therefore were unable to support local fishing operations11,24. Despite these barriers to fishing, a high proportion of fishers and traders (65-80%) stated that their best coping strategy was to continue fishing, despite receiving lower prices for catches, a trend that contrasts with small-scale fisheries in Mexico where 48% of respondents reported that they that had stopped fishing and 44% of the fishers reported that they were unable to adapt and stopped selling their products due to lack of traders or storage space26.
In several countries in the Indo-Pacific many women fish for their families or process fish for income27,28. In Southeast Sulawesi, women are primarily involved in the trade of salted, dried and smoked fish products to local villages and markets as described elsewhere29,30. Women traders in our study were four times more likely to rely on processing fish as a coping strategy then men. Maintenance of trade in processed fish would appear to be an important economic and food security strategy for women traders, and also for some men, to preserve fresh fish being landed in villages and cope with reduced trade and lower prices of fresh fish.
The low proportion of respondents who were able to use savings, loans and seek other employment opportunities suggests that long-term strategies to improve livelihood opportunities, access to financial services and empowerment over their natural fisheries capital is urgently needed19,31. Financial strategies that assist and strengthen local fish processing businesses can play a critical role in building financial resilience of vulnerable fishing communities32. These strategies encourage domestic trade and consumption, improve the marketing and processing of fisheries products33, and mitigate nutrient shortages to deliver good outcomes for public nutrition and health34,35 as well as global food security3. In addition, financial strategies that support alternative sources of income such as small-hold farming or other employment could help fishing communities increase resilience in times of unforeseen economic shocks that affect their local fisheries19. Across approximately 6,000 coastal fishing households in Southeast Sulawesi, 25% reported income from small-hold farming (Rare unpublished data). This may explain the extremely low (<10%) stated reliance on small-hold farming as a coping strategy by respondents in the present study.
As we identified through interviews with fishers and traders, small-scale fishing households felt that they could best cope with the impact of low demand and low price for fish by continuing fishing activities and fish processing. Following our surveys, provincial governments, including Southeast Sulawesi, began disbursing assistance including subsidizing the market chain by buying fish and fish products to maintain community income, subsidizing aquaculture production through the provision of fish25 and providing direct emergency food relief by supplying food packages for household consumption15. Further assistance programs identified households in need from District Social Agency data and disbursed support through the National Village Fund to cushion the impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic on low-income families36, as ordained by The Minister of amended Villages, Regional Development and Transmigration Ministerial regulation37. In May 2020, the Indonesian parliament recommended that government and state-owned enterprises purchase and distribute fisheries products that cannot be absorbed by export markets. Subsequently the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries allocated a Rp 1.02 trillion (US$69 million) stimulus package or 18% of its 2020 budget to aid COVID-19 affected small scale fishers, fish farmers and salt farmers, and for processing and marketing, surveillance efforts against poaching and internal auditing of the fishing industry38,39. Our finding that catch, value and price of some fisheries products showed signs of recovery, after downturns immediately after the pandemic was announced, suggests these strategies could be contributing to small-scale fisher household consumption and resilience.
In addition, gender considerations are important. Women are more vulnerable as they represent a relatively high percentage of the workforce in the informal economy, are rarely insured or are unable to access protection offered through health, employment or emergency policies and contributory social protection mechanisms11,40. In Indonesia, male fishers are more likely to be formally registered by the national fisher registration system, which provides emergency and life insurance, than fishers who are women. For fishers and traders in the informal sector, improving access to government programs, in both times of crisis and for general assistance would benefit from improving registration systems. This would ensure that small scale fishers can build a formal financial identity with the provision of social security and insurance benefits granted for protection of workers in small-scale fisheries40 and access to other financial services provided by private providers.