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Seafood industry battles on through pandemic

Friday 20 March 2020

These are testing global times and the seafood industry is far from immune to the fall out.

The industry is feeling the very real impacts with market disruption ranging from diminishing travel options to reduced freight capacity and limitations on cold storage availability. Some may be making difficult decisions around staff and crew.

As financial markets take unprecedented hits and governments scramble to provide economic stimulus it is anything but business as usual.

This week alone, three major events on the New Zealand seafood calendar were cancelled or postponed.

Minister Stuart Nash’s inaugural Sustainable Seafood Awards that were scheduled for this past Wednesday were postponed and both the Maori Fisheries Conference, scheduled for next week and the Federation of Commercial Fishermen’s Conference which was set for the end of May in Dunedin, were cancelled.

Internationally, the WTO meeting on eradicating fishing subsidies, set for June in Kazakhstan and supported strongly by New Zealand, has also been cancelled. As has the Boston Seafood Show, while the seafood expo in Brussels, the largest global seafood event, has been postponed and tentatively rescheduled for June 23-25.

These are decisions not taken lightly and reflect the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation and the realisation that it will be a long time before the world returns to normal. The restrictions on international air travel and government advice about limiting large gatherings simply makes these events untenable.

While decisions around school closures or directives for employees to work from home if possible have not yet been made by the government work is already going on to make sure workplaces are preparing their staff for that eventuality.

Some believe this change will be the disruptor that triggers a whole new way of working, with video calls and other technology replacing traditional offices. The Guardian this week reported that many employees sent home by large, primarily technology companies in the UK are questioning why they ever had to come into the office in the first place.

In Seattle, hit hard by COVID-19, companies including Amazon, LinkedIn, Google and Microsoft allowed employees to work from home as early as February and last week Twitter made it compulsory for its 5000 staff to work remotely.

Proponents of a shift to remote working say the wellbeing benefits to employees of no long commutes coupled with the financial benefits to employers of not having to pay large infrastructure overheads are something to consider even in non-infectious times.

As the pandemic takes its course a reduction in domestic consumption brought on by a tourism shut down is also inevitable. As airlines and cruise lines either cease operations or reduce capacity and the cancellation of large events will also have a toll in the short term.

The financial implications of COVID-19 on New Zealand’s live seafood trade, particularly rock lobster, have been well documented but the true cost of the pandemic is yet to be seen. The message should be to look after staff, many of whom will be worried about external factors such as a partner losing a job, or an elderly relative being affected.

The seafood industry is resilient, and the government has proven a willingness to support industries affected and share vital and timely information.

But there is no doubt we need to buckle in for a rough ride.

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