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Pandemic takes toll on nation's fishing industries

COVID-19 has hit all sectors of the American economy hard, including the seafood industry. Two new studies show exactly how detrimental the pandemic has been to the country’s fishing industries. A study conducted by Rutgers University and published in late December 2020 indicated that two-fifths of commercial fishermen operating in the region from Maine to North Carolina did not go fishing at all in the first half of the year. The study was based on a survey of 258 fishermen conducted from March to June 2020. Of those who did fish, nearly all said that their income had dropped compared to previous years.

The study also looked at landings of commercial species. The landings for some species, such as squid and scallops, decreased compared with previous years. The landings for species such as black sea bass and haddock were comparable to or higher than previous years. The data suggest that fishermen may have landed as many pounds this year as they had before the pandemic hit but were paid less.

The spread of the virus caused U.S. restaurants, where nearly 70% of seafood is traditionally consumed, to shut down, which then caused ripples within the seafood supply chain. While sales of seafood in grocery stores did increase during the early months of the pandemic, the price paid to fishermen largely did not.

The survey found that fishermen adopted a number of strategies to adapt to the pandemic. Strategies included selling their catch directly to consumers, participating in residential delivery programs and community-supported fishery programs or switching the species of fish they target.

The Rutgers study notes that “While we found that many fishermen kept fishing in the short-term, it will be necessary to study the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the industry to understand whether this trend will continue.”

A broader report, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in January, reviewed the pandemic’s effect on the entire country’s commercial fishing and recreational charter boat sectors from January to July 2020. The data show that landings revenue fell in all areas of the country. Revenue from species such as tuna, salmon, and lobster fell between 30% and 80%. The report noted that grocery store sales of frozen and shelf-stable seafood products grew in the spring, but the increase had little impact on overall revenue to fishermen.

In the northeast, nearly every commercial fishery was affected. The report states, “Calendar year 2020 revenues exceeded baseline revenue during January and February but have been below baseline March to June for a cumulative difference of -$126 million. The majority of the cumulative reduction in 2020 revenues occurred in April and May (70%) of which $79 million was associated with reduced revenue from American lobster ($21 million) and sea scallops ($58 million).”

New England lobstermen experienced a sharp decrease in price paid for their harvests, according to the NMFS report. “… obster prices were initially 13% above baseline average prices in January but declined by 39.6% to $4.82 per pound in March 2020 compared to an average of $7.99 per pound during March, 2015-2019. In June 2020 the average price per pound fell to $3.82 from a 2015-2019 June price of $5.29 per pound.” Only surf clam and ocean quahog prices remained at or slightly above the 2015-2019 baseline prices.


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