With New Zealand peering into an economic abyss as restrictions on many businesses continue, there is reason for optimism coming out of the primary sector.

The fishing industry was the first to feel the effects with rock lobster exports into China and, while it is not fully recovered indicators are pointing in the right direction.

The numbers of vessels in the New Zealand fleet halved at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown but have clawed their way up to around three quarters of the fleet now out fishing. Grappling with social distancing rules and finding PPE were just some of the challenges. Disappearing local markets was another. The recovery, in part, is due to the agility of inshore operators to find alternative local markets and sell direct to the public on-line.

The deepsea fleet faced different challenges as the global markets for its fish began to falter. New Zealand’s largest markets; China, Australia and the United States were all affected as borders slammed shut. Refrigerated container supply dried up as companies rushed to preserve the fish they couldn’t export and containers that had managed to get out of the country couldn’t get back in.

However, slowly markets are reopening. Rock lobster is returning to the tables in China as the country first to succumb to the virus becomes the first to recover. Australia, like New Zealand, has weathered the pandemic better than most countries in the world and the border has opened for New Zealand seafood. The United States will be slower to recover.

The announcement last week that 56 new flights would leave New Zealand for Australia, Asia, Middle East and the US was the stimulus New Zealand’s primary sector needed. The $330 million International air freight capacity scheme aims to take our freight out and bring essential medical supplies in. While nowhere near the hundreds of flights flying cargo out of New Zealand pre-COVID, it is the fillip needed to get close to business as usual.

Export statistics released this week make us cautiously optimistic, although only second quarter numbers will tell the true story.

The figures for the three months ending March 2020 show New Zealand exported 77,230 tonnes in 2020 compared with 75,430 in 2019 which was up 2.39 percent by volume. The overall export value of $477.75 million in 2020 compared with $499.75 million in 2019, down 4.4 percent by value.

However, there has been real pain in some sectors, particularly those selling live and chilled product into China such as rock lobster, paua and oysters.

If the recovery in our markets continues, it will not just be seafood that will cushion the economic blow to New Zealand from coronavirus, but all of the primary sector.

Beef exports in March rose three percent in volume and 14 percent in value as compared to last March. Sheep meat exports rose four percent in volume and three percent in value compared to the same time last year.

Strong demand for New Zealand food globally remains. During February and March, New Zealand's overall export revenue across the primary sectors (meat, dairy, seafood, forestry fruit and vege) was similar to exports for the same period in 2019.

There is a genuine feeling amongst the fishers, farmers and growers in New Zealand that our contribution is valued much more than it was five months ago. That the COVID crisis has caused a reset – a realisation that primary producers really are the backbone of this country.