Pandemic boosts demand for Latvian fisheries products – Canning sector sees coronainduced spike in trade

by Thomas Jensen

EM5 2020 LV T1This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 5 / 2020.

As in other countries the pandemic’s impact on the hotel, restaurant, and catering sector was brutal. Producers of canned fish products, an important part of the Latvian processing industry, however experienced an uptick in demand as consumers took to stockpiling shelf stable goods and those with long expiry dates in the early days of the virus’ spread. The canning sector forms an important part of the Latvian fish processing sector with a tradition that goes back over a century. Today there are a handful of large companies that are the main producers and exporters of canned products down from some 20 firms a couple of decades ago. These companies belong to the Union of Latvian Fish Processing Industry, an association that decides the criteria behind the label Riga sprats in oil, which the companies use to market their canned sprats. The raw material for this well-known product, exports of which go around the world, comes from the Baltic Sea. The canning industry faced a crisis in 2015 when Russia embargoed canned products from Latvia. Since Russia was the single most important market for several producers this development contributed to the restructuring and consolidation among canned fish producers. Since then canneries have expanded their export markets mainly to the EU, but also to other countries such as Canada, Japan, and the US. Processing facilities are certified to EU standards, but also to other international standards such as International Featured Standards (IFS), British Retail Consortium (BRC), or GOST (for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries). Cans account for only part of the output from the processing sector, other products include smoked, salted, and preserved fish. According to the 2019 STECF report on the EU fish processing sector, Latvian processors are active importers and exporters of fish and seafood. Data from the Central Statistics Bureau of Latvia show that exports of processed fish products increased steadily in value from 2016 to reach EUR93m in 2019, a growth of 42% over the period, while volumes increased by 17%.On the other hand, the export value of fresh, chilled or frozen fish declined 11% to EUR73m. Raw materials, other than those available from Latvia’s Baltic Sea catches, are supplied by other countries. Imports of chilled or frozen fish between 2016 and 2019 increased 2% in value to EUR128m, while the volume actually fell 4% to 64,000 tonnes. The main trading partners for supply of raw material are Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland.

COVID-19 induced restrictions spur demand for canned products

The canning industry has been one of the few sectors to benefit from the pandemic. In the early days of the virus’ spread across the world, consumers, fearing the worst, stocked up on shelf-stable products including canned fish. Export markets did not close, says Normunds Riekstins, Director, Fisheries Department in the Ministry of Agriculture, as even during a crisis people have to eat and while there was a slowdown in parts of the sector, the canneries have seen higher demand for their products. The FAO has noted that supply of fresh fish has been disrupted by restrictions on capture and farmed production and on distribution, for a variety of reasons directly and indirectly related to COVID- 19. The lack of fresh fish may also have contributed to the popularity of canned products. In addition, processors supplying countries in the former Soviet Union benefited from the image of canned products as foods associated with times of hardship, according to an executive from a leading canned fish producer. Didzis Smits, the head of the Union of Latvian Fish Processing Industry, says that the canned fish industry had a “good” crisis in comparison to the Horeca (hotels, restaurant, catering) sector. Among the challenges faced by hotels and restaurants with regard to the supply of fish was the restriction on movements that both prevented customers from visiting restaurants and hindered the distribution of fresh fish. This combined with the constraints on fishing for Eastern Baltic cod (closure of the targeted fishery) created a difficult set of circumstances for vessel-owners.

Number of vessels in the offshore fleet falls further

The Latvian fishing fleet is broadly divided into three segments, the coastal fleet which comprises vessels typically up to 10 m, vessels fishing in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga which vary in size from 12 m to 40 m. Generally speaking, within this group the larger vessels (24 to 40 m) are active in the Baltic Sea while the smaller ones fish in the Gulf of Riga. Finally, there is the high seas fleet composed of the largest vessels in the entire fleet. These are usually 40 m and above and are active in the Barents Sea as well as off the coasts of Mauritania and Morocco in west Africa. While vessels numbers have remained more or less stable within the coastal segment at just over 600 of which only about 200 are used in commercial fishing, in the other two segments the number has declined—by nearly a fifth in the case of the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Riga fleet from 63 vessels in 2015 to 51 in 2019, and from 11 to 5 in the high seas fleet over the same period. The offshore Latvian fleet active in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga has seen a degree of consolidation over the last years as companies have merged or been taken over by others. This trend is likely to continue, says Viesturs Ulis, Chairman of the Board, National Fishermen’s Producer Organisation, an organisation that represents the 12 largest fishing companies in Latvia. Merging fishing opportunities should lead to higher turnover, bigger income, and companies that are more economically viable. The Ministry of Agriculture is not against further consolidation in the offshore segment as it will contribute to a more efficient and profitable fleet. Besides, there is not yet any risk of one or two companies monopolising the quotas. Improved incomes may also contribute towards companies upgrading their fleets. This is sorely needed as the average age of a boat is 30 years and most owners are therefore reluctant even to invest in measures such as advanced safety features for which support is available. Support for new vessels is not considered at all as both the European Commission and some EU Member States are against it, says Mr Riekstins. Vessel owners must either approach commercial banks or fund the investment themselves, though there is a faint possibility that if a company gets support for scrapping its cod fishing vessel it may be able to invest it in improving its other vessels to fish for other species.

Collapse in cod quota suggests bleak future for cod-fishing vessels

The Baltic fleet mainly comprises pelagic trawlers though until recently a few vessels also targeted cod. With the collapse in eastern Baltic cod quotas by 87% in 2020 and a total closure of the targeted fishery (171 tonnes of by-catch quota for Latvia) prospects for the near and mid-term future look bleak. The European Commission’s proposal for 2021 slashes the eastern cod bycatch quota further to 51 tonnes. In turn, the fishing opportunities for western Baltic cod (137 tonnes for 2020) are not substantial enough to keep viable fishing operations for a number of companies. Fish stocks in the Baltic are no longer influenced only by fishing pressure, but also by marine pollution and climate change and the longterm sustainability of the Baltic is an imperative not a choice, Virginijus Sinkevi?ius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and
Fisheries, said when proposing the quotas. This negative development will have consequences for vessels in the Latvian fleet that depend on cod, as they have no other options to fish for. Didzis Smits, chairman of the Latvian Fisheries Association and a member of the Latvian parliament, is convinced that cod stocks are not going to revive for a long time. The approximately 10 vessels that are dependent on cod must be properly and rapidly compensated for the permanent closure of their business. Redistributing pelagic quotas to cod fishermen is not an option because they are allocated based on historical rights and track records, therefore we do not want to make the situation worse for everybody, says Mr Riekstins. He refers to the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund 2014-2020 Programme, amendments to which are now under consideration that would allow for compensation for the scrapping of cod fishing vessels. These vessels have already benefited from a national scheme that offers compensation for a temporary cessation of fishing activities in 2019, and which follow with a package of initiatives introduced to protect the stock. The European Commission’s proposed measures which included a ban on fishing in the main distribution areas of the eastern Baltic cod in the second half of 2019, the closure of targeted fishery with a small by-catch TAC in 2020, and extension of the spawning closure period. The scrapping programme for this period in accordance with the fund Programme was closed at the end of 2017 but now may be reopened though only for cod fishing vessels, Mr Riekstins emphasises, and only for those that are really affected and purely targeted cod. If a fishing company goes out of business as a result, the quota will return to the state to be redistributed after the cod crisis comes to an end. A question And what happens to the scrapped capacity if the cod stocks improve faster? There may be a possibility that companies still in business after relinquishing their cod fishing capacity may regain it if the situation really improves, but the rules regarding this are still under consideration in the EU institutions, says Mr Riekstins.


Invasive black goby has become a useful resource for coastal fishermen

The Latvian coastline is roughly 500 km long and the coastal fleet may fish up to a depth of 20 m, says Evalds Urtans, who leads the Latvian Fishermen’s Federation. There are two types of coastal fishers, those who fish commercially to sell their catches on the market, and those who fish for self-subsistence. The commercial fishers number some 600 employed by about 150 companies, while selfsubsistence fishers total roughly 2,000. This segment uses a variety of fishing gears including static nets, bottom hook-lines, traps and fyke nets and flounder seines and targets several species including, herring, round goby, flounder, cod and salmon. Of these, herring, cod, sprat, and salmon are regulated by quotas, while catches of other species are unrestricted. The fishery is managed by limiting the number of gears that may be used. These limits are placed by the coastal municipalities in accordance with the relevant regulation which is based on the stock assessments and catch recommendations provided by BIOR, the National Institute for Food Safety, Animal Health, and the Environment. Catches in coastal waters over the past five years have averaged about 3,500 tonnes (in 2019 – 3,222 tonnes, of which herring 2,146 tonnes,, and round goby 618 tonnes,). A possible way to improve access to markets would be to have the coastal fisheries certified as sustainable, but, according to Mr Urtans, the volumes are too small to be of interest to proceed with such certification. The coastal fishery is facing challenges in the form of the poor status of cod stock which have reduced by-catch quotas for this species to virtually nothing. Quotas in the coastal fishery are calculated as a fraction of the national quotas, so when the latter rise and fall, they influence the coastal fisher quotas equally. The total coastal fisheries quota for all regulated fish species has averaged about 2,900 tonnes a year. Another issue is that of dioxins in the Baltic Sea, which impacts in particular the longer-living, fatty fish such as salmon and large herring. Among the biggest immediate threats to the coastal fishery is the predation by seals, both in terms of the damage done to fishing gear as well as the loss of catches. On the other hand, the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus), a Black Sea region native which has invaded the Baltic, has proved to be a marketable species—though not locally. Instead, fishers export the frozen fish mainly to Ukraine. Catches have increased from 26 tonnes in 2013 to a record 1,100 tonnes in 2018 before falling to 620 tonnes the following year. A minor amount is sold also on the local market fresh for consumption with some processed into cans and some going to fishmeal. Round goby export opportunities are the exception as most species caught by the coastal fishery are sold on the domestic market. But there is interest among coastal fishers to add more value to round goby, according to Mr Urtans. He would like to see greater collaboration between coastal fishers in the form of direct sales and e-auctions, as well as more cooperation with Black Sea organisations to expand sales opportunities. Greater support from the state to better exploit the potential the fish has to offer is also desirable. Adding value to the catch would lead to higher incomes for the fishers and to increased tax revenues for the state.

Making the sector attractive for young people

Although the number of coastal fishers has been stable the last five years the average age is creeping upwards as in other segments of the sector. Mr Riekstins says the government is interested in making it attractive for young people to join the sector. Many coastal fishing enterprises are family-run businesses so the next generation should be prepared to take over. However, physically demanding work often in harsh conditions and a fluctuating income tend to discourage young people. Moreover, working with outdated vessels and equipment clearly does not provide the right incentives. Most coastal fishers manage from fishing in summer but need a second job in the fall and winter when bad weather often prevents them from going out to sea. In the next EMFF programming period (2021-27) some support for young coastal fishers will be considered, says Mr Riekstins, including educational programmes, consultancy services to assist new fishers, and help towards the acquisition of their first vessel. This generation has grown up glued to smartphones and internet facilities and we need to find ways they can exploit their welldeveloped technological and social skills to become successful fishermen. Developing innovative methods to process and sell value added fish that rely on these abilities may work as an incentive to join the sector, he muses. The administration will also support the transfer of ageing fishermen’s fishing business to the next generation so as to facilitate the entry of new blood into the segment.

Popularity of angling is linked to a well-developed administrative framework

With over 100,000 recreational fishers (5.3% of the population), angling is a widespread pastime in Latvia. Although its direct impact on the economy is marginal, the social benefits of recreational fishing should not be underestimated. It includes angling, crayfish catching, and underwater hunting and is regulated by the state. All anglers between the ages of 16 and 65, whether resident in Latvia or tourists, are expected to obtain fishing, crayfish catching and underwater hunting cards before they start fishing. These cards have a validity of one day, a month, a quarter or a year and cost between EUR1.5 and 14.25 depending on the duration. The longer-term cards can be purchased at gas stations, supermarkets, post offices etc. across the country, while the two shorter term cards can only be obtained online (,
or though the app, Mana Cope). The different validities allow anglers to purchase a card that is appropriate for their expected time span of recreational activity. The number of cards issued has been increasing gradually over the years, suggesting the activity is increasing in popularity. The cards give a recreational fisher access to public and private lakes and rivers, however to fish in another waterbody, where licensed angling, or crayfish catching or underwater hunting is organized, an additional permit (license) is required. The share of revenue from the cards and licenses as it is specified in the regulatory framework is transferred to the government’s Fish Fund for restocking and conservation purposes as well as for other activities related to sustainable use of fish resources. Pike, bream, perch, tench, and roach are present in most catches from lakes and water-bodies, while vimba, bream, and pike are the most caught fish in rivers. The catch composition depends on the season, the water-body, and the fishing gear. There are no restrictions on the types of gear an angler may use, however certain gears are limited by number and by the number of hooks. Angling is subject to detailed rules regarding the numbers and sizes of the different species they may be caught. The fisher is expected to gently and promptly return to the water fish that is not permitted to be retained. Compliance is monitored by the State Environmental Service, the Nature Conservation Agency (if the water is situated in specially protected nature territories), and the local administration. Inspectors patrol the waters and their shores regularly to check licences and catches and to ensure compliance with the rules. Owners of fishing rights and of water-bodies are also involved in the protection and control of use of fish stocks, while information about stocks and catches is gathered by BIOR, the National Institute for Food Safety, Animal Health and the Environment, through the data provided by the organisers of licensed angling activities. Outside the licensed angling sites the data on anglers’ catches are not collected directly, but regular questionnaires reveal that on average some 1,660 tonnes of fish are caught in public waters each year.

A sense of responsibility for the aquatic environment amongst children

Responsible fishing is important for the sustainability of fish stocks, on which both anglers and commercial inland fishers depend. To this end the Latvian Rural Development and Consultation Centre (LLKC) organises public awareness and educational campaigns aimed at families, anglers’ organisations, and inland water-body managers to promote the sustainable exploitation of fish and crayfish stocks, explains Agnese Neimane-Jordane from the LLKC. The campaigns focus on the importance of nature, the role fish play in an ecosystem, their way of life, fishing regulations, and caring for the environment. To inculcate an interest in nature and its stewardship amongst the young, the LLKC makes a particular effort to include children in its outreach activities. The LLKC also arranges workshops for inland water-body managers where participants can exchange experiences, and can learn about obtaining support for projects, and the role of scientific institutions in inland water management. On behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture the LLKC also surveys anglers to learn about challenges facing the sector, to identify solutions, and to collect feedback on the regulations governing their activities. As in other countries, in Latvia too anglers and commercial inland fishers have an uneasy relationship. Each blames the other for poor catches, when in fact scientific studies have shown there is little difference between the two with regard to the exploitation of fish stocks. To maintain the peace the Ministry of Agriculture has instituted a consultative council, says Normunds Riekstins, that includes representatives from each of the stakeholders. The municipalities have an important voice as they decide which activity is more important in their territory. Inland fishers in several areas play a significant role in the supply chain, providing fresh fish to towns and villages and offering the inhabitants an alternative offer to marine or farmed fish. For the Horeca and tourism sectors too inland fishers are an important source of fresh raw material. That said, Latvian commercial inland waters fish catches at 300 tonnes are relatively insignificant and municipalities are interested in attracting anglers as they generate more revenues from relevant rural tourism activities. Therefor there are several cases when local authorities approach the government to shut down or substantially reduce commercial fishing activities in waterbodies in their municipalities in favour of recreational fishers and tourists.

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