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The Baltic Blue Bioeconomy and COVID-19

Throughout the world, Blue Bioeconomy sectors are being severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and many actors are finding inspiring ways to deal with the consequences it poses, both now and in the future.

The economic crisis catapulted by COVID-19 has serious effects on the Blue Bioeconomy and the Baltic is no exception, with challenges faced on ships, farms, laboratories, markets, factories, offices and so on. Although it may be argued that the marine environment has perhaps been given some room to breathe with reduced fishing and marine transport activities and wild marine populations may reap temporary benefits from this, the disrupting impacts of COVID-19 on the Baltic Blue Bioeconomy supply chains are serious.

Impacts of measures

In the Baltic, small businesses and local producers are suffering from the effects of restaurant and market closures as well as restricted export markets, as travel restrictions, social distancing and quarantine measures are keeping workers and consumers at home and are forcing producers to find alternative markets. Farmers are struggling with sales and distribution barriers; lockdowns and social distancing measures are making it difficult for consumers to make their way to (super)markets; and generally production is slowing down. Aquaculture, mussel and seaweed farmers are facing losses in sales and are having to consider shutdowns in production, entailing risks to the viability of their businesses. Although the European Food and Safety Authority has made it abundantly clear that the virus is not transmittable through food or food packaging; fresh food sales, including seafood, have been decreasing across Europe. Even where the transport of products is possible, the quality may suffer, due to travel and trade restrictions.

Example: aquaculture in Sweden

As transport and storage logistics of fisheries and aquaculture products are becoming increasingly challenging, local support networks are proving crucial, as creative ways to support local producers with preserving their livelihoods are being sought across the Baltic. In Sweden, many fish farms now have cages of ready-to-sell fish, which cannot be sold since hotels and restaurants have cancelled their contracts. On Åland, fish processing companies can no longer transport fish since ferries have been discontinued.

The question is now, what to do with these fish (arctic char and trout): processing them into fish meal or slaughtering them? Caged fish are growing and cannot be kept in the cages without breaking requirements of laws and permits. There are also juvenile fish in land-based tanks waiting to be set out, and if they cannot be let out in the cages, there will be no production for next year.

This poses a crisis for aquaculture companies as well as other food product enterprises. Even though opportunities are being explored regarding international export, this also poses challenges regarding transport requirements across borders, as well as obvious challenges with preservation (requiring tons of ice to keep the fish fresh). Although theoretically, borders are not closed in Europe for the transport of goods, there are hardly any flights and ferries. Thus, in reality there is no possibility to transport this fish in the short timeframe required to guarantee sufficient quality of the fish. Other countries have locked down transport completely, or are doing very thorough checks, hereby delaying trade significantly.

The Swedish Board of Agriculture and the Rural Network have therefore been in touch with Swedish municipalities, schools and public kitchens to see if they are interested in buying aquaculture products directly, taking at least advantage of the fact that prices have now dropped due to the cancelled hotel and restaurant contracts. Some municipalities and producers have expressed interest in making this a reality, and solutions are being explored regarding freezing and storing fish. Three Swedish organisations are currently looking to set up a project to increase self-sufficiency in the Swedish aquaculture sector.

On a positive note, the sales of a Danish company (more information in Danish) that delivers fresh fish weekly to consumers, have already gone up due to COVID-19.

European responses

The European Commission has set up the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative (CRII) to help Member States fund their coronavirus crisis response. A package of measures is available to support the agri- and food sectors and national funding schemes have been approved, recognising the crucial role of these sectors in ensuring food security in the EU. For example, state aid for Latvia has been approved through a €35.5 million direct grant scheme to support the agriculture, fishery and food sectors, promising up to €120.000 to companies active in the fishery and aquaculture sector. Similar approved schemes exist for other countries in the Baltic Sea Region. European support measures include ‘direct support to farmers, fishers and other beneficiaries; flexibility in the use of unspent funds under the Common Agricultural Policy and the European Maritime Fisheries Fund; as well as the establishment of ‘green lanes’ that allow the flow of food cross Europe; recognising seasonal workers as ‘critical workers’ to ensure continuity in the agri-food sector; and granting aid for storage of products; and simplifying some administrative procedures in its programmes’.

PIC1

Screenshot of the full Infographic ‘EU support to agriculture and fisheries’. Available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/infographics/covid-19-agrifish/

What now?
The European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety has emphasized that national responses to COVID-19 should not hinder the advancement of the European Green Deal, the blueprint of the EU to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by the year 2050, making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent. Climate and Environment Ministers of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Latvia and Sweden, as Baltic Sea Region representatives, have signed an appeal to place the Green Deal at the center of the European economic response to COVID-19. At the same time, a crucial part of the Green Deal, the implementation of the EU’s ‘From Farm to Fork’ strategy, has been postponed, delaying the ambitious objective of making the ‘entire food chain from production to consumption more sustainable and neutral in its impact on the environment’. That being said, officials declare that the timeframe for the new EU Climate Law will not be affected and will see a target proposal for 2030 in September of this year, emphasizing that delays regarding the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy should not be overstated. According to the OECD, ‘governments have a unique chance for a green and inclusive recovery…that not only provides income and jobs, but also has broader goals, integrates strong climate and biodiversity action, and builds resilience’. The institute has published a comprehensive website dedicated to COVID-19, which includes a Country Policy Tracker that presents the responses from governments across the globe (link).

While more general discussions regarding the impact(s) of the pandemic refer to the sustainability of current production and consumption patterns and systems across industries, the Blue Bioeconomy is hit especially hard, as the impacts of the pandemic are affecting both the market as well as the demand side of the Blue Bioeconomy sectors.

The SUBMARINER Network

Considering the importance of reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030, Baltic Blue Bioeconomy actors must now take the lead on “how to move forward more sustainably” rather than “back to normal” ‘after’ COVID-19. The members of the SUBMARINER Network for Blue Growth are working actively to contribute to economic recovery in different and inspiring ways, as they continue to work hard, often from home. In the following paragraphs, we showcase some actions taken:

BioCon Valley® cluster health economy for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany has initiated extensive support services, #WeHelp, since the beginning of the measures to contain the pandemic. It has set up a webpage ‘Corona-Help’, presenting information about economic aid from the federal state; from German governmental organisations and institutions; sector-specific information; information about foreign markets, fairs and exports; employer and home office; tax law and tax measures;  insurance and contractual issues and project funding. In mid-April, the ‘Corona Cooperation Exchange Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’ portal was launched, bundling all offers and needs of clinics, companies, research institutions and private initiatives in the state – enabling direct contact with each other.

The Swedish University of Gothenburg’s Centre of Sea and Society’s seminar series ‘Sea and Society Talks’ is now organised via webinars, attracting a large audience. The Swedish Region of Östergötland is the regional public health provider and is now focusing mainly on providing urgent health care, with some of its non-health office workers from the Regional Development Department redirected to unqualified, health-related tasks, while others are providing advice and/or economic help to private companies in need. At the University of Tartu, fieldwork is continuing as usual, with all necessary precautionary measures implemented. The lab of SYKE, the Finnish Environment Institute, is almost closed and fieldwork with the research vessel Aranda has been cancelled or postponed. This also means that SYKE is currently unable to collect samples for monitoring the Baltic Sea in Finnish water bodies, and all new experimental work is postponed. The Latvian Institute of Aquatic Ecology laboratory has a schedule to follow safety requirements, meaning that no more than two people are allowed in a lab room at the same time, and they must keep two metres distance from each other. Fieldwork, however, is not restricted and research cruises have continued. The University of Gdánsk in Poland is offering remote classes and consultation; community support; as well as COVID-19 related research and have set up a dedicated webpage with updates (in English). The scientists of the university are members of expert groups and science teams combatting the pandemic and are supporting healthcare service efforts by explaining the threat of COVID-19 in the media, reassuring the public and debunking false claims. In response to economic restrictions resulting from the outbreak of COVID-19, the Pomeranian Self-government of Poland has launched a Facebook page dedicated to entrepreneurs: anyone who offers or needs a good / service or wants to cooperate somehow, can publish their advertisements here.        

Lessons for the future          
The President of the European Commission stated that a new reality for Europe ‘should be driven toward a more resilient, green and digital Europe… including solutions that are not only good for the economy, but also for the environment’, echoed by Vice-President Timmermans where he emphasized that the ‘Green Deal is not a luxury, but a lifeline to get out of the corona virus crisis’. Capitalising on its longstanding role as global frontrunner, the Baltic Sea Region can make an important contribution to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals through further developing the Blue Bioeconomy whilst mitigating the impacts of COVID-19. What is needed now are well thought out interventions that work both on the short term as well as on the long term, and cooperation on a transnational scale as well as from an intersectoral perspective will be crucial – ensuring that the ‘blue’ is sufficiently included in the green future of Europe.

Written by Lisa Simone de Grunt This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

 Further reading


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