CHATHAM – Groundfish quotas and allocations began anew May 1, marking the technical start of the commercial fishing season. But with restaurants still closed and other markets limited, local fishermen have fewer outlets for their catch.
“The good thing is our fishing season really hasn't ramped up yet,” fisherman Doug Feeney said recently. “But we don't know what the next three months holds.”
Feeney is a member of the Chatham Harvesters Cooperative, which is working on ways to market local catches locally. Currently, they're helping bring together shellfishermen with local restaurants to help make up the loss of that market. They and others see an opportunity in the current crisis to raise awareness of the local seafood industry and connect consumers with providers, especially given the possibility that some food supply chains, particularly meat and poultry, could be disrupted.
“It's unfortunate this happened, but it's also a good thing for people to start looking where they're food comes from,” said Feeney.
A number of local fishermen have already started selling directly to consumers; the state has made that easier by expediting retail boat permits, and fishermen and processors were designated as essential workers by Gov. Charlie Baker. And when word gets out, demand is certainly there. One local Facebook-organized seafood buying group had to cut off membership because of limited product and concerns about social distancing.
“That would be a great silver lining in all this,” Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, said of new awareness and connections between local fishermen and consumers. The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance has a list on its website of fishermen who are selling to consumers as well as local fish markets that are open. Scallops, lobsters and whole fish can be sold directly off the boat with permits, but not bivalve shellfish, like oysters or quahogs, or processed fish.
With 70 percent of fish consumed in restaurants, it's hard to make up the difference through direct sales.
“The industry will need restaurants to open to fully restore demand, and that will take some time,” state division of marine fisheries director Dan McKiernan said in a video posted last week. He called on residents to support local fish markets and fishermen by buying fish that can be prepared at home.
Some local fishermen have been plying southern New England waters for skate and monkfish.
“There's definitely been a reduced price and a reduced quantity,” said Nick Muto. Those species don't have the demand that the more valuable groundfish have; when that fishery picks up, he's thinking about looking into the retail permit as well.
But for now prices are depressed mainly because restaurants are closed. Local buyers at the Chatham Fish Pier and Saquatucket Harbor are still buying fish, but there's a concern that with low demand, they're “slamming their freezers,” said Feeney, which, when things open up, could mean lower prices.
“We just don't know yet,” he said.
Jared Auerbach of Red's Best Seafood, a Boston fish buyer that operates out of one of the packing bays at the Chatham Fish Pier, said he doesn't see that happening; he's buying the product that fishermen are bringing in, and has also begun selling directly to consumers through his website. The local commercial fishing industry is “nimble” and can pivot easier than other supply-chain dependent food industries.
“Consumers are scared about the meat industry,” he said. “It's a good reset for us to take a step back and see how amazing we have it, the abundance of healthy fish in our back yards, whether you get it from the docks or from us. It makes you feel more secure.”
Despite his optimism, Auerbach says the shutdown has hurt most people in the business.
“The challenge is that it's difficult to happen with the same kind of volume and consistency that the whole infrastructure of the industry is designed to accommodate,” said Rolbein. “This has added another level of uncertainty onto a situation where guys really have to be nimble and smart to begin with.”
The federal CARES Act included $300 million in fisheries disaster funding, $28 million of which will benefit the Massachusetts seafood industry. Fisheries advocates, however, worry that little of that will trickle down to medium and small-scale seafood businesses, including harvesters, processors, distributors and shore-side facilities, and are requesting that additional aid be set aside for the industry.
In a May 4 letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross signed by 238 seafood organizations, the North Atlantic Marine Alliance called on the federal government to provide $1.5 billion in emergency funding for the industry, with at least half designated for small and medium-scale operations. The letter also requests that the fishing industry be given the same treatment as the agriculture industry and be eligible to participate in the agriculture department's Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which received $19 billion to support farmers and ranchers.
Government support can help to build on the new connections being made between the public and fishermen, said NAMA National Program Coordinator Brett Tolley of Chatham.
The Chatham Harvesters' pilot shellfish program has worked well on a small scale, and could be expanded to include fin fishermen. The group had been working on getting dogfish onto plates in colleges, hospitals and other institutional settings as a less expensive fresh fish option, but uncertainty about when classes will resume has sort of put the program in limbo. Circumstances may mean that local consumers will find the option more attractive, said Feeney.
“We're trying to make those links,” added fisherman and Chatham Harvesters member Luther Bates.
With the recent opening of Nantucket Lightship areas to sea scalloping, the Alliance has been helping local fishermen get permits to sell off the boat, said Rolbein. Although lobster prices have been low, lobstermen can also sell directly off the boat.
There's plenty of opportunity, said Muto. “Catchability isn't the issue here. A lot of guys are chomping at the bit, but they don't want to go for nothing.” As restaurants open and more people arrive in the area and started to demand local seafood, there could be big opportunities for fishermen, he said.
“If people come here in the summer, they're going to rip through the Cape like locusts,” he said, noting that millions of people live within a day's drive of the area and once things open up may descend on the Cape like the proverbial voracious insects, many of them looking for fresh seafood.