Italy’s fishing sector and its response to the pandemic

by Thomas Jensen
EM4 21 IT Overview

Adverse impact is tempered by positive developments

The most important EU fleet in the Mediterranean has been declining in size for some years. Effort in terms of days at sea has been reduced and catch volumes and values have declined since 2004 with a slight uptick in 2013. The corona pandemic showed the resilience and innovative spirit of the industry as fishers found alternate ways of doing business as the traditional supply chain broke down.

With almost 12,000 vessels (2019) the Italian fleet is still among the largest in the Mediterranean although the number of boats, gross tonnage, and power have declined by 19%, 27% and 23% respectively since 2004. Of the total number of vessels, the small-scale fishing fleet (SSCF), vessels less than 12 m, accounted for just over two thirds while vessels operating with towed gears, demersal trawlers and beam trawlers, constituted 17%. Other fleet segments include dredgers (6%), purse seiners (8%), long liners (2%), passive polyvalent gears (3%) and pelagic trawlers (1%). In terms of gross tonnage the trawling vessels account for almost 60% of the total making it the largest fleet segment by this measure. Purse seiners, vessels that also target bluefin tuna, account for 8% of national tonnage, while other segments contribute 2% to 5% of national tonnage. Italy also has a distant water fleet comprising 9 vessels—8 bottom trawlers and 1 purse seiner.

The Italian fleet has a wide area of operations

A quarter of the fleet, some 3,000 vessels, operates in the northern Adriatic (GSA 17) in the area between Venice and Molise. These are traditional fishing grounds and all the different gears used by the Italian fleet can be found deployed here. A further 2,500 vessels are active in the southern and central Tyrrhenian Sea (GSA 10) which includes the areas off Campania, Tyrrhenian Calabria, and northern Sicily. Vessels fishing off the southern coast of Sicily (GSA 16) are relatively few in number (less than 10% of the total) but are significantly larger in terms of gross tonnage than the average. The fleet operating in GSA 18, northern Puglia, numbers some 1,000 vessels while a further 1,600 vessels are active in GSAs 9, 11, and 19 (Ligurian Sea and Northern Tyrrhenian Sea; Eastern and Western Sardinia; and the Western Ionian Sea).

Total days at sea declined by 10% in 2019 compared to a year ago due to management measures such as the Italian management plan for demersal fishing and the WestMed plan for Tyrrhenian vessels which include a mandatory reduction in days at sea. The actual number of days reduced depends on the GSA and the vessel length.

In 2019 the Italian fleet landed 177,000 tonnes with a value of almost EUR900m. Demersal and beam trawlers accounted for the lion’s share of both volume (37%) and value (54%), the latter thanks to catches of high value species such as red shrimps and prawns that can fetch up to EUR20/kg. Pelagic trawlers landed 20% of the catch but the low unit value of pelagic fish meant a total value of around EUR70m. In terms of geographic subareas, the northern Adriatic contributes nearly half the landings (46%) and a third (34%) of the value, while southern Sicily is responsible for 12% of the landings and 16% of the value. Landings in GSAs 10 and 18 at 19,000 tonnes are about the same as in southern Sicily but the high fraction of pelagic fish reduces the value of the catch. The distant water fleet caught over 6,000 tonnes mostly from the Indian Ocean with a value of about EUR12m.

A range of fishfish and shellfish is targeted by fishers

The most important species in terms of landings are anchovies, sardines, clams, and white shrimp followed by hake, mullet, and cuttlefish. Almost all species recorded a drop in landings in 2019 compared with the year before. Differences varied from -4% for hake to -26% for mullet. In euro terms the value of anchovies increased by 6% and that of white shrimp by 9% while cuttlefish and hake fell by 36% and 9% respectively. The average unit price increased slightly to EUR5.04/kg from EUR4.98/kg in 2018. This is in line with the trend since 2014 and compensates partially for lower landings. In terms of fleet segments, catches by demersal and bottom trawls dropped 15%. As this segment is responsible for the biggest landings and over half the total value, the decline in landings in this segment has a significant impact on the performance of the entire fleet. In 2019, total value of catches was 7% lower than in 2018 primarily due to the 14% fall in value of catches by the demersal trawlers. Since 2004 catch volumes and values dropped steadily until 2013 before stabilising at a slightly higher level from 2015.

The decline in catches can at least partly be attributed to measures to reduce fishing activity by reducing the number of vessels, restricting the days at sea, or with spatial restrictions introduced to protect vulnerable stocks as well as spawning and nursery areas. For example, in the Jabuka/Pomo pit in the Adriatic Sea and in the Strait of Sicily where three new Fishery Restricted Areas were introduced in 2019 to protect juvenile hake and pink shrimp. These measures have been implemented because over three fourths of Mediterranean and Black Sea stocks assessed are over exploited, according to STECF’s 2020 Annual Economic Report on the EU Fishing Fleet, though this is an improvement since 2014 when the proportion was 88%. The latest communication from the European Commission to the EU Parliament and Council on the status of sustainable fishing in the EU states that fishing mortality in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea is more than double sustainable levels. Some 42% of Mediterranean stocks show low biomass. There are, however, differences between GSAs. Exploitation rates for red mullet, for example, appear to be sustainable in GSAs 10 (Southern and Central Tyrrhenian Sea) and 18 (Southern Adriatic Sea), but highly unsustainable in GSA 11 (Sardinia).

Fishing sector reels under corona restrictions

The impact of the pandemic last year was felt by all segments in the fishing sector. Although the government excluded the sector from its lock down regulations as it was considered strategic to the national economy, measures introduced to contain the pandemic including the shutdown of economic activity, the restrictions on travel within the country, and the suspension of production, accommodation, and catering had an indirect impact on the sector. The closure of export markets and the drop in tourism added to the economic misery. Fishing activity ceased within days of the national lock down being introduced in March 2020. Ruggero Urbani, a consultant in the sector, says that trawlers, for example, instead of sailing five days in the week, only went out three times. The decline in the numbers of wholesalers operating in major markets and harbours, the shutdown of food service (hotels, restaurants, catering), and the subsequent fall in prices made fishing economically unviable. In some cases the risks to the health of fishers and the need to comply with new health regulations prompted the interruption of activities. After a couple of weeks in port, fishing vessels started going out again from almost all Italian harbours though activity varied with fleet segment and GSA.


A report by CREA (Council for Agricultural Research and Economics) and NISEA (Fisheries and Aquaculture Economic Research) details the impacts of the pandemic on the Italian fishing sector and the respon
ses to them. In GSA 9 (Ligurian Sea and Northern Tyrrhenian Sea), the trawl fleet of some 280 vessels that target shrimp, scampi, and red shrimp, stopped fishing in March. Only three fifths of the vessels resumed their activities towards the end of March as the number of buyers and wholesalers had sharply reduced leading to a drop in demand. Transport too stopped almost completely making distribution difficult. Half the small fishing vessels in Liguria and Tuscany stopped fishing for transparent goby (Aphia minuta) which generates a large proportion of their income. Demand for this species which is concentrated in Liguria had fallen significantly. The purse seine fishery also stopped as safety standards could not be maintained with the number of crew members on board. And while fish markets remained open the number of auctions was severely reduced. The story in GSA 10 (Southern and Central Tyrrhenian Sea) was similar with a complete cessation of fishing in the first week of the lockdown in March. However, in Campania, demand in coastal cities like Naples and Salerno sustained the sector although prices fell and the catch structure changed with less high value species (deep water rose shrimp, and skates) as the restaurants were not operating, and more hake, octopus, and cuttlefish. In northern Sicily trawlers and 10-12 m vessels stopped their activity while smaller vessels continued catching in response to demand from fishmongers and local consumers.

Closure of food service sector hits sales of high value species

In southern Sicily (GSA 16) the lack of demand and the shutdown of fish markets in Catania and Palermo affected not only the large vessels but also, in contrast to other areas, the small-scale fleet. The larger trawlers such as those operating in the Strait of Sicily which target high value species like red shrimp could not sell their catch as the restaurants and hotels which typically purchase this product, remained closed. As a result, large quantities of frozen product remained unsold leading to liquidity issues for many operators. Large vessels were also unable to maintain the safety standards required on board which prevented them from sailing. In the western Ionian Sea (GSA 19) the tradition of selling fish to a few buyers who monopolise the trade was partly responsible for the drop in demand. The lack of wholesalers who sell fish in the markets of Milan and Turin was an issue for most of the larger trawlers. Some, where the catch could be frozen on board, maintained their activity. In Ionian Calabria the cuttlefish fishery, usually in March, did not take place though the gillnet fishery in Ionian Apulia continued normally. In the southern Adriatic (GSA 18) some trawlers continued fishing in spite of the drop in demand. Fish traders where present were only interested in a few species, such as hake, so fishers were unable to sell high value fish species and crustaceans. Small-scale fishers caught smaller quantities which were sold to local consumers or small fishmongers.

On the Adriatic side, some fishers agreed to rotate their activities or set quotas. In GSA 17 (Northern Adriatic) fishers stopped their activities in March and slowly started up again in April. Fish markets remained open but activity was subdued. Small fishing vessels in Abruzzo were affected by the lack of consumers who did not come to the port because of the restrictions imposed. All along the coast fishers were affected, the seasonal fishing for cuttlefish was interrupted, trawling has only been sporadic, small-scale fishing was limited in days per week, market activity was lower due to the lack of traders, and fishing on larger vessels has been constrained by the inability to comply with health regulations on board. Fishers targeting small pelagics in the northern Adriatic were affected by the initial closure of borders as they could not export their catch to Spain. However, the situation improved a few weeks later and demand increased due to low prices. Fuel prices too declined by some 40% which helped to reduce costs. Longliners targeting bluefin tuna faced a drop in first-sale prices and to adapt to reduced demand the Sicilian producer organisation limited the daily landings. In general, the impact of the pandemic was milder on the small-scale vessels which land some 15-20 kg per sea day. Their fish is sold to smaller retailers, local fish shops, or to end consumers. In several ports this sector increased sales to end consumers, but where restaurants depended on the presence of tourists, fishers’ turnover collapsed as there were no tourists and restaurants were closed.

Fishers devise creative ways to mitigate effects of lockdowns

The situation brought about by the pandemic forced the fishing sector to respond with measures of its own to contain the damage. To counter the drop in demand and the subsequent fall in prices fishers limited the supply of fish on the market by reducing the number of fishing days, especially for the demersal trawlers. In many ports, vessels were rotated to reduce the number that went out fishing each day, and catch ceilings were introduced—particularly in harbours on the Adriatic coast. These efforts prevented the accumulation of unsold product and by the second half of April first-sale prices were once again in line with the seasonal average. In addition to reducing supply, fishers also started targeting species for which demand was high by switching to fish and seafood of lower commercial value that was popular among domestic consumers rather than the food service sector. The absence of first buyers prompted fishers to directly contact commercial intermediaries and the large retail chains and also to start direct sales to consumers with the help of the internet.

Consumer behaviour changes in response to corona-induced situation

Consumption patterns among the population changed as people adapted to the restrictions imposed to contain the pandemic. The rapid spread of the virus and the lockdowns that followed confined people to their homes and shut down eating places. Consumers switched from buying fresh products to shelf stable items, such as canned, smoked, frozen, or preserved products. In the month from mid-February to midMarch canned product (tuna) sales increased 36%, while frozen and smoked products increased 26% and 25% respectively, compared with the same period a year ago, according to data from ISMEA (Istituto di Servizi per il Mercato Agricolo Alimentare). Consumption of seafood products increased 4.3% despite a 6.1% decrease in demand for fresh seafood because of the closure of the food service sector. The use of local stores (to avoid travel), supermarkets, and discount retail increased, while online purchases grew explosively. Prices of seafood tended to fluctuate in April and May with prices of frozen seafood increasing while that of fresh declining. The distribution of seafood products also changed due to the disappearance of wholesalers and other commercial intermediaries operating in the large fish markets. Retail chains increased in importance as sources of seafood offering a range of shelf-stable products, many of them imported, in response to the lack of fresh products. Channels such as online and telephone sales, collection from fishermen, and home deliveries which existed before the pandemic experienced a surge in interest during the lockdowns. In some towns fishmongers got together to experiment with the sale of pre-packaged products, while in others fishers organised the donation of unsold catch to charitable organisations for distribution to needy families. Some processing units bought products that could be frozen (such as shrimp) directly from fishers with view to freezing and selling it to restaurants when they opened.

Some silver linings can be discerned

The pandemic’s impact on the seafood sector was undoubtedly severe, but there were also positive effects, such as the increase in consumption of certain product types (frozen, shelf-stable) and
the boost it gave to innovative distribution channels. These have proved to be beneficial for fishers and consumers, have contributed to the resilience of the sector, and promoted the sales of locally sourced fish and seafood. This could potentially encourage consumers to eat more of these products, and also have collateral benefits in the form of a lower carbon footprint (less transport), lower hygiene management costs, and improved traceability. Whether these unconventional sales forms will thrive once the restrictions occasioned by covid-19 are lifted and life returns to normal, remains to be seen.

– The 2020 Annual Economic Report on the EU Fishing Fleet (STECF 20-06)
– L’emergenza covid-19 e il settore ittico italiano: impatto e risposte, Nisea, CREA, 2020
– Relazione annuale sugli sforzi compiuti dall’Italia nel 2019 per il raggiungimento di un equilibrio sostenibile tra la capacità e le possibilità di pesca, MIPAAF

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