FISH SAFE: Pandemic stress is real, but fishermen finding ways  to cope, survive, push forward through COVID-19

We can always count on the fact that the full moon of August, the Sturgeon Moon, will give way to the full moon of September, the Corn Moon.

It happens every year with astronomical consistency in the heavens.

But here in 2020, on earth versus the heavens, any consistency we expected in past years – in terms of work, or leisure, or general normalcy – has been thrown into disarray by a microscopic virus. 

Overnight, it happened.  Or so it seemed.

Not in the time it takes for one full moon to become another, but in just days, the market chain serving the fishing industry was gone.  Closed due to COVID-19.

Restaurants, grocery stores, small markets, schools, and export trade were either shuttered entirely or operating on the margins at reduced capacity.

In what is already a stressful industry, we wondered how fishermen and their communities were handling the intense economic pressure brought on by the pandemic.  During a recent visit to Maine we asked around.

States throughout the region, including Maine, issued stay-at-home orders at the peak of the COVID crisis but exempted “essential workers”.  Fishermen were among those essential workers, and were allowed to continue to fish, but had basically no outlets for their product.

Fishermen sold to fish processors until they became overwhelmed.  Market prospects were limited and bleak.

Fishermen who were connected to a well-diversified distributor/wholesaler had an easier time selling product than those whose markets were strictly local and single-faceted.

Staff at Robinson’s wharf on Southport Island, ME mentioned that their distributor/processor reliably bought any product Robinson’s restaurant was unable to sell.  This was a big help between mid-March and mid-June when the restaurant was closed, and it meant that many lobstermen in the Boothbay Harbor area had a “safety valve” of sorts. 

As mentioned in CFN June 2020, Point Judith, RI fishermen – through the Commercial Fisheries Center of RI – established their own “direct buy” supply chain to move product from boat to buyer.  The idea:  Phone in an order, wait in line in your car at the wharf, and your fish order will be delivered to you.

Many enterprising fishermen in Maine also individually developed their own “direct buy” programs.  Some churches also helped out.

Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), told me, “This is a really stressful time to be a lobsterman.” 

He mentioned that fishing effort among lobstermen has been down, and that some fishermen who could not get a reasonable price for lobster have turned to fishing for groundfish or menhaden. 

So without market consistency, what is the glue that’s helping the industry weather this summer’s disarray due to COVID-19?

One thing is the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP).

Maine’s Congressional delegation strongly supported the PPP and, of all Maine industries, the lobster industry had the largest representation in the program.

Lobstermen who participated received on average $10,000-$11,000 through this program which, though less than their usual income, helped them weather the COVID storm.

More recently, again thanks to the active advocacy of Maine’s Congressional delegation, $20 million  of the $300 million allocated to the fishing industry through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act has been designated to Maine.

The Maine Dept. of Marine Resources (DMR) and other agencies are presently in the process of developing a spending plan for this money which will be submitted to NOAA for vetting and approval this fall.

Meanwhile, as if there were not enough disruption, stress, and financial worry, new federal whale protection regulations, enforceable as of Sept. 1, require extensive purple and green (Sliver Area and federal waters) markings on buoy lines.

Unfortunately, this marking required extra expenditures at a time when income was down.  But fortunately, the slower pace due to COVID-19 in the spring helped provide the time for marking buoy lines.

The stresses of this most unusual year are significant, unprecedented, and far from over.  Fishermen need to heed the advice, “Take care of yourself, take care of others.”

Unlike the dependable late summer alignment of the moon and the planets, realignment of the many moving pieces in the fishing market chain are not assured, nor even predictable at this point.

Most agree that even as we return to the “new normal”, things will undoubtably be different.  But they will always be dependent on the ingenuity and commitment of the fishermen who make up this proud and resilient industry.

Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327 or by e-mail at <abackus@hsph.harvard.edu>.