Survey: Fishing Industry Suffering Under Pandemic

By: Alan Pollock

Offloading at the Chatham Fish Pier. FILE PHOTO

In news that comes as no surprise, a survey conducted by federal fishing regulators and the University of Florida has found that COVID-19 has taken a toll on the commercial fishing industry, from fishermen and charter boat operators to seafood processors and dealers.

The first round of the phone survey was conducted in July and August, and the second round is underway now. Chosen at random, people in the fishing industry may receive a call from the 352 area code, and will be asked to complete the confidential survey. The process takes less than 10 minutes, researchers say.

Results from the first round of surveys paint a bleak picture of the pandemic’s effects on most fisheries, according to findings released by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Nationwide, though landings saw a 3 percent increase last January and February, COVID-19 restrictions caused the harvest to drop each month, from 19 percent down in March to a 45 percent decline by July. The economic impacts were severe, since the seafood industry generates more than $200 billion in sales annually and sustains 1.7 million jobs, officials say.

“In the coming months and years, scientists and economists will work to obtain a more complete picture of COVID-19’s impact on U.S. seafood and the Blue Economy,” said NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver. “It is our hope that this initial analysis provides a foundation that the industry researchers and planners can draw upon as they plan for the future.”

In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, 83 percent of commercial harvesters felt impacts from the pandemic. Comparing to the same time period in 2019, 17 percent of commercial fishermen reported having reduced the number of trips, 60 percent experienced poor markets for their catch, and 78 percent stopped fishing for some period of time. While about three-quarters of fishermen responding to the survey had managed to avoid laying off employees, 91 percent said they had reduced revenue. About a third of fishermen reported that they were instructed by a dealer or processor to stop fishing, and about a third reported receiving low prices for their catch.

Of the seafood dealers and processors included in the survey, 91 percent reported impacts from the pandemic, with many trimming business hours, cutting sales to restaurants and retailers, or closing for a period of time. About 37 percent of the businesses surveyed reported staff reductions, with the largest group reporting an average of three layoffs. In the summertime, business was reported to be down about 58 percent compared to June and July 2019.

The pandemic also hurt the charter industry, with 91 percent of the party boat operators surveyed reporting impacts from COVID-19. For about 35 percent of respondents, charter fishing was their primary source of income. Eighty-seven percent of charter captains reported stopping trips for a period of time, with business in June and July reported as being about 42 percent of the prior year’s revenues. While some operators reported having trouble finding crew and identifying passengers, more than half of respondents – 56 percent – said they were harmed by restrictions by state and local governments.

The survey notes that some of the economic losses to the commercial fishing sector were likely offset by emergency federal relief programs. In May, NOAA allocated $300 million in fisheries aid to states as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, for distribution by interstate fishery commissions. Also, in September, the Secretary of Agriculture made $530 million available through the Seafood Trade Relief Program to support fishermen and industries impacted by retaliatory tariffs from foreign governments.

“NOAA Fisheries stands with our fishermen, seafood industries, and coastal communities who have suffered great economic hardship this year due to COVID-19,” Oliver said in a news release. “The United States is a global leader in sustainable, world class fisheries. Our goal is to help all those up and down the U.S. seafood supply chain rebound, recover and strengthen resilience as we plan strong returns to sea in 2021 and beyond.”