Fishermen fear for their future as Covid uncertainty throws industry into turmoil

The fishing industry could be hit hard by new restrictions. Credit: ITV News

Fishers and industry experts across the West Country say they fear for the sector's future as new Covid restrictions mean restaurants shutting their doors and seafood prices continuing to fall.

As the virus threatens a second wave - the number of cases in Plymouth has doubled in the last three weeks - trawler skippers are worried that the prospect of another lockdown could deal them a potentially fatal blow.

People are being encouraged to buy locally-caught fish. Credit: ITV News

David Stevens, who owns the Crystal Sea trawler which operates out of Newlyn, said: "We're free market, we don't have a fixed price for fish.

"That all depends on distribution, and if we can't distribute that fish your market will decline. The entire industry will suffer huge losses until we're out of lockdown situations once again."

Mr Stevens says some skippers may be forced to tie their boats up for the winter.

"We're going to have to reduce the supply to keep the fish price up. But with the restaurant trade closing down around the country, we're going to lose 30 per cent of our market price."

Fishers in the West Country are at risk of financial instability. Credit: ITV News

Rodney Anderson, former head of fisheries at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "We have to remember that fishing is a business, not a vocation. They need to make a living.

"It's a precarious business, a dangerous business, and a risky commercial business. The margins are narrow and there isn't much of a buffer there."

A recent study into the finances of small-scale coastal fishers not only found concerns around insecurity of income, but also a direct link between financial worries and poor mental health.

Catherine Spencer, chief executive of Seafarers UK, said: "We can't solve those mental health problems and other challenges that fishers face without providing them with a more secure financial future."

Fish is a major part of the region's economy. Credit: ITV News

There are some creative solutions. The Call4Fish scheme, which started in Plymouth, allows fishers who would usually sell to restaurant or export their catch to deliver directly to people's homes through an online order form. But the Government is being urged to do more.

A Defra spokesman said:  "We have worked closely with the fishing industry during this difficult time and continue to monitor the situation. Our Fisheries Response Fund provided £10 million for the sector to help fishermen cover costs and we encourage them to take up the other financial support currently available to businesses."