Fishermen Hope for Change as the Seafood Industry Faces a Crisis

June 26, 2020 update: The CDC today published new guidance designed to protect workers in seafood processing facilities and on fishing vessels offshore from the coronavirus. For fishermen, the guidance suggests that employers consider quarantining fishermen for two weeks prior to sailing, to identify potential COVID-19 cases before they leave the dock.

Earlier this month, President Trump traveled to Maine to announce plans to reopen a vast marine preserve, created by President Obama in 2016, to commercial fishing. While ostensibly aimed at helping New England fishermen catch more fish and expand their businesses, Maine fishermen—and fishermen across the United States—are grappling with a sobering reality that the president’s controversial plan won’t solve: They can’t sell their fish.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, only half of the fish harvested by Maine fishermen in May sold, and prices averaged 18 percent less in comparison to May the prior year. Landings were also down by more than half, at 44,495 pounds, because many fishermen aren’t going out to sea while the restaurants that are their main markets remain shuttered.

“It’s been a difficult slog over the past couple of months,” says Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fisherman’s Association, emotion rising in his voice. “It’s just really scary right now, with the marketplace and COVID, and thinking about how we protect the fishing heritage.”

For Martens, the president’s visit was a missed opportunity to address the real problems facing Maine fishermen. Very few, he says, even fished in the Northeast Canyon and Seamounts stretch of deep ocean before Obama designated it a marine monument to protect its fragile ecosystem and the sea turtles, mammals, and other life it supports.

Since March, Martens’ organization has been helping Maine fishermen create business plans that will build resiliency into their future, as they face a multitude of challenges, including the pandemic, climate change, competition over ocean resources, and uncertainty over pending regulations to protect the endangered right whale.

Small-scale fishermen in coastal communities across the U.S.—from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska—continue to face daunting challenges during the pandemic. Recent policy actions—including the reopening of Northeast Canyons, the president’s aquaculture executive order from last month, and the coronavirus relief programs passed by Congress—have failed to address the problems or provide real support.

And they’re not alone. A recent Conservation International report spotlights how small-scale fishers around the world, many of whom already experience food and livelihood insecurity, are facing an uncertain future.

Market disruptions and fishing closures; increased risk of COVID-19 infection from working in close quarters on small boats; and climate change stressors—from storm events to ocean acidification to fish population shifts—are creating extreme hardship among small-scale fishermen. This group contributes one-half of the catch worldwide and provides social, economic, and cultural benefits to coastal communities.

“Let’s get money into the hands of fishermen so they can pay their bills, but let’s also build a system that’s more resilient to the next global health pandemic that comes down the road.” 

One bright light highlighted by Conservation International—and previously reported by Civil Eats—is an increase in fishermen selling direct to consumers, whether at the dock, online, or through community supported fisheries. While many view direct sales as a stopgap measure to get fishermen through the season, some fishery groups want to leverage the momentum they’ve gained to solidify consumer preferences toward locally caught, wild-harvested seafood—and away from imported, farmed fish.

But, as the report underscores, small-scale fisheries need more than that to survive; they need financial support from government and private donors, as well as nonprofit and supply chain collaboration and a host of other measures.

“Let’s get money into the hands of fishermen so they can pay their bills,” says Eric Brazer, deputy director, Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance. “But let’s also figure out how we build a system that’s more resilient to the next global health pandemic that comes down the road.” For Brazer, that means investing in “better infrastructure and working waterfronts, and a stronger seafood supply chain,” as well as including more seafood in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity purchasing programs and a nationwide effort to promote consumption of U.S. seafood.

Yesterday, Trump signed an executive order that added the lobster industry to the USDA’s $30 billion agricultural bailout fund, aimed at supporting food producers affected by his trade war with China; it’s unclear how much of those funds will end up in lobstermen’s hands, and experts think it’s unlikely to make a long-term difference in the economic viability of the industry.

Fishermen in Dire Need

Most U.S. fishermen are independent workers, which means if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. They’re “among the working class of our country who are the lowest paid, most likely to die on the job, and most likely to go without health insurance,” says J. J. Bartlett, executive director of Fishing Partnership, a nonprofit that supports 20,000 New England fishing families.

All of the fishing groups that Civil Eats spoke with said few if any of their members were able to access the U.S. Small Business Administration’s pandemic-prompted Paycheck Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs because the typical employment structure of a fishing crew didn’t allow for it.

Captain Garry Libby doing a test tow for cold-water shrimp. The fishery collapsed in 2014 and was shut down. (Photo credit: Ben Martens)

And while $300 million was directed to fishermen through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, “fishermen have yet to see a penny of that,” says Brazer. In early May, the Commerce Department allocated money to the states, which are each now deciding how to equitably disburse the funds to fishermen.

For Brazer, it’s been a frustrating process. “Nobody will tell us how the states are going to distribute that money to fishermen. We’ve had to reach out to the gulf states to say, ‘Here are some guidelines, some things you should consider whenever you get around to figuring out however the fishermen who desperately need this get some economic relief,’” he says.

Beyond the delay in getting money into fishermen’s pockets, fishing groups—while grateful for the support—say it isn’t enough.

Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, says, “$28 million is not going to solve any big problems,” about the funds awarded to Massachusetts. “Once it gets divided out among everybody, it’s hard to see how big of an impact it’s going to have.”

National fisheries, continues Rolbein, have received “a tiny fraction of the relief that’s been offered to other areas of the economy that is in no way commensurate to its economic impact.”

In fact, for every dollar that the agriculture industry received from pandemic relief, the seafood industry got a penny and a half, he says.

Trump’s Executive Order Undermines Wild Fisheries

With fishermen struggling, the Trump administration issued an executive order last month to promote American seafood globally, largely by boosting offshore aquaculture—farming fish in open-water pens—and relaxing fishery regulations. It calls for the identification of “aquaculture opportunity areas” and sets up a structure to streamline permitting for aquaculture in federal waters, such as through short timelines and reduced environmental safeguards.

“Deregulation is not the way to get fishermen back to work.”

While aquaculture proponents largely cheered the order, U.S. wild fishery groups were dismayed.

“Deregulation is not the way to get fishermen back to work,” said Brazer, and in fact, strong regulations, meant to protect fish populations over the long-term, “provide [fishermen] with the opportunity to build a business that’s going to last . . . something they can pass on to their kids.”

Fishermen groups worry that relaxing regulations for offshore aquaculture will lead to increased marine pollution and disease among wild fish populations, whose migration routes often come close to the net pens of the farmed fish.

“It’s a disaster for fisheries,” Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, noted bluntly. “If you look anywhere around the world where’s there’s open-water aquaculture, native wild runs have been eliminated. Alaska’s fisheries are healthy because we’ve protected habitat and we’ve protected the wild stock,” she says.

Finfish aquaculture is banned in Alaska waters, but the state allows what it calls mariculture, or small-scale aquaculture operations for shellfish and seaweed.

Linda Behnken holding a halibut. (Photo © Josh Roper Photography)

Behnken supports mariculture, which she says complements wild fisheries and provides an alternate source of income for local people. Fishermen’s groups in other coastal areas generally support such small-scale aquaculture, but worry about the industrial-scale operations envisioned by the executive order.

“Our focus on aquaculture is near shore and decentralized,” Rolbein told Civil Eats. “It’s family-based. It’s small farmers working . . . with no environmental interventions, no antibiotics, no permitted structures, no food other than what the tides brings. It’s all completely in the natural habitat and in our communities.”

“The president’s Executive Order was nice,” he continued, “but it didn’t really address that, and it did make us wonder about the long-term implications of very large aquaculture offshore, which is very different from how we do it.”

Resisting large-scale aquaculture will be tough, however, if we also want to increase fish production as the executive order calls for, says Halley Froehlich, an assistant professor at U.C. Santa Barbara. Some 85 percent of U.S. wild-caught fisheries are presently fished at or near maximum sustainable levels, leaving little wiggle room to increase catch, she says.

In fact, half of the seafood that Americans eat today is farm-raised, and much of it is imported from countries with weak environmental safeguards, says Froehlich. “If you don’t want it in your backyard, then it’s coming from somewhere else.”

Froehlich sees a role for U.S. aquaculture—managed with strict environmental safeguards—in providing a healthy, sustainable source of protein. But, she thinks systematic integration between aquaculture and wild fisheries, which are now regulated separately, is critical, as well as a robust stakeholder process that includes local fisherman.

“Ultimately, it really matters what stakeholders want,” she says.

A Future for U.S. Wild Fisheries?

Overall, the majority of seafood consumed in America is imported—about two-thirds, in fact, according to recent research by Jessica Gephart, assistant professor of environmental science at American University. What’s more, Americans stick largely to the same products, and that, Gephart says, “opens the door to not really caring where your seafood comes from, just looking for the least expensive product.”

Landing a halibut in Alaska. (Photo © Josh Roper Photography)

To get more people interested in eating wild-caught fish, Brazer would like to see a national campaign to promote wild, sustainably harvested U.S. seafood, and the people and communities who harvest it. He points to Alaska’s Seafood Marketing Institute, which is funded in part by a tax on fishermen, and runs consumer campaigns and other activities to promote Alaskan seafood, as an example of what’s possible.

There’s momentum now for that kind of push, says Rolbein. “We’re seeing a really dramatic increase in the number of people who are . . . going down to the ports and buying directly from their captains and their crew. It harkens back to the way fish moved 100 to 200 years ago.”

“Anecdotally, people love it,” he continues. “There’s such a great connection between someone who comes down to a boat and actually sees the boat and the captain—and off comes the freshest possible thing.”

But direct sales to consumers alone won’t keep fishermen in business. That’s why fishery groups would also like to see the USDA make seafood purchases to distribute through schools, food banks, and nutritional assistance programs, as it does now for beef, pork, vegetables, and fruit.

Expanding USDA procurement of seafood is one measure the Fishing Communities Coalition is calling for in response to the policies of the Trump administration. The coalition released its plan to “save America’s fish economies,” shortly after Trump’s visit with Maine fishermen, stating that “opening up a national monument to additional fishing . . . won’t solve the very real and immediate needs of our nation’s fishermen.”

The coalition seeks a $5.4 billion package in relief funds, half of which would go for immediate relief, as outlined in the CARES Act. The other half would go for longer-term relief, and would be channeled through existing government programs that currently underserve fishermen.

In addition to increasing seafood purchases by USDA, fisheries groups would like better access to USDA programs that support small producers, such as by helping them build local markets. Fisheries groups would also like to tap into Department of Transportation funds to improve supply chain infrastructure for processing and transporting seafood.

This is the kind of support that Martens and others are identifying as critical, as they help fishermen to create long-term business plans that will increase their resiliency.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that our fishermen will come back from this,” says Rolbein. “In fact, if we’re fortunate, we may find ways to take this real crisis moment and turn into an opportunity to make our fisheries even stronger longer term.”

Brazer agrees. “This COVID-19 global health pandemic is going to fundamentally change human behavior,” he says. “If we can harness that . . . and show consumers it’s not just salmon, shrimp and tuna—it’s snapper, it’s rock fish, it’s crab, it’s herring. . . . I think we’re going to see greater appreciation for wild-caught fish and the people who bring it to you.”

Top photo courtesy of Ben Martens.

This article was updated to correct Eric Brazer’s title and the name of his organization.

Meg Wilcox

Meg Wilcox is a freelance writer based in Boston focused on solutions-oriented stories about the ways people are fighting climate change, protecting the environment and making our agriculture systems more sustainable, including by addressing poverty. She formerly worked in communications at Ceres and Root Capital.

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