Arkansas is home to a diverse aquaculture industry. Federal and state guidelines implemented in response to COVID-19 have impacted some sectors of the industry harder than others. The Arkansas aquaculture industry, overall, has fared well.

Baitfish producers have lost some revenue sources in northeastern states, Canada and Florida, but sales to central and southern states have remained strong as fishing has become a popular activity during the isolation period, according to Dr. Herbert Quintero, Extension specialist-aquaculture/diagnostics for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Baitfish producers are receiving steady orders and cash flow appears stable.

“Food fish producers who rely on the Asian live markets in big cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago are suffering the most. Declines in sales began as early as January when the severity of the outbreak in China began making news,” Dr. Quintero said. “There is great concern among producers that these live-fish markets in large cities will be some of the last sectors of the economy to fully re-open once governments begin scaling back social distancing guidelines.”

Some sport fish producers are also being hit by cancellations of state contracts and cancellations from distributors located in other states.

“Arkansas fish producers understand the risk of this issue, and quickly started practices focusing on the safety of customers and their own personnel,” he said. “Restricted measures have been put in place in most of the facilities by minimizing contact with customers, performing regular cleaning (using wipes, hand sanitizers, gloves and masks) and being stricter on biosecurity measures with trucks and vehicles entering in their facilities. As a result, some personnel have assumed heavier workloads to fulfill additional responsibilities.”

The aquaculture industry operates in an environment where optimal use of personnel is critical; this means that every staff member is essential and losing even one of them can trigger a domino effect that can cripple a farm, Dr. Quintero said. In the few cases where staff were required to quarantine in Arkansas, every part of farm operation from water quality surveillance and management, fish feeding and sorting, levee maintenance, equipment repair and bird depredation was affected.

“One Arkansas farm had to lay-off about 40 percent of their crew, and that is affecting their whole operation,” Dr. Quintero said. “Two farms reported sending one worker each to quarantine. Fortunately, both farms were able to keep their workers on payroll, but the opportunity cost must also be considered along with the monetary cost.”

Some producers are caught in the middle of expansion projects, leaving them vulnerable to economic downturn. This could delay their original plans for growth, inducing societal opportunity costs in the form of fewer jobs created than anticipated and a lag in industry development, he said.

“Some products, such as food fish, have a narrow window for optimal revenue to build reserves to maintain cash flow during months where product cannot be sold–a window that is closing now,” Dr. Quintero said. “It is possible some farms will not be able to generate adequate reserves.”

Some food-fish producers are concerned that customer bases that took great time and effort to build are experiencing increasing unemployment that may cause them to shift to other food options, he said.

“Special consideration needs to be given to the mental health of every worker in the industry, considering the emotional response, frustration and stressful state of mind due to the uncertainty that this pandemic has created for everyone,” Dr. Quintero said.