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FISH-SAFE: Fishing industry during COVID-19: Essential, but paralyzed?

What do you do when your industry is categorized “essential” — along with agriculture, pharmacies, grocery stores, manufacturing, and hospitals — but your supply chain is disrupted?

You adapt.  Something that fishermen here are good at, though no one has ever seen anything quite like this.

On Mar. 15, Gov. Janet Mills of Maine declared a State of Emergency because of COVID-19 and, on Mar. 24, issued Executive Order 19 which listed essential business that would remain open during the crisis.

This list included food processing, agriculture, fishing, and aquaculture as the first items mentioned — possibly reflecting how very important fishing and aquaculture are in Maine.

And elsewhere in the region:

On Mar. 13, Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire declared a State of Emergency and provided a list of essential businesses in his state.  He listed food processing and seafood slaughter facilities, but did not specify fishing or aquaculture by name.

On Mar. 10, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts declared a State of Emergency there.  He issued an essential businesses order on Mar. 23, which was later updated on Mar. 31. His list of essential businesses included seafood slaughter facilities and “farm and fishing labor needed to produce our food supply domestically and for export.”

Lastly, on Mar. 9, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island also declared a State of Emergency, and subsequently issued her critical industries list on Mar. 28.  This list included “agricultural/seafood equipment and supply stores.”

As we all know, the New England states rely heavily on income from the fishing industry, and the supply chain is complicated — as the above references to critical or essential businesses suggest.

In New England, Maine stands to lose the most in terms of revenue from the industry as the accompanying graph, showing the value of lobster landings from the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program (ACCSP), demonstrates.

Should Maine lobster landings go south by 30%, the total catch value would drop to $340.1 million.  If there were a 50% reduction, the number would be closer to $246 million.  These are big and sobering numbers indeed.

But the catch value is not the only number we are interested in, given that for every one dollar of fish (or lobster) landed, about three dollars enters the economy in Maine through tourism, restaurants, marinas, marine fabricators, etc. — all connected to the state’s fishing industries.

Several Maine sources have painted a grim picture of the current situation there:  many fishing boats not going out, wharves not buying, and the fisheries/seafood supply chain seriously disrupted. 

Some individual fishermen are being innovative and using social media to sell their fish and are responding to requests from neighbors and friends.

Several fish buyers are selling curbside.

And processors are freezing fish and waiting for the time when retail and restaurants are again serving patrons in their facilities, according to Bert Jongerden, general manager of the Portland Fish Auction.

Furthermore, not all fishing-related businesses have been idled.

Ben Dinsmore, owner of R.E. Thomas Marine Hardware Inc., a marine hardware manufacturer in Downeast Maine, has a normal workload, and he has made major changes in how he does business.

He has developed COVID-19 policies for multiple levels of situations, created split shifts, set up individual workstations for his employees, placed pallets outside the shop for deliveries, and offers pick-up and delivery for clients in southern Maine.

He is fortunate to have a diverse client base which includes heavy industry related to the health care industry.

There are obviously many other fishing-related businesses in Maine and New England that remain active and have adjusted to the COVID-19 situation.

We know, however, there are a number of workplaces that are under-prepared to offer a safe and healthy workplace during these times. 

For the workers in these workplaces, there are strong and industry-specific regulations with which owners and managers are required to comply.

We encourage employees to work with management to reach compliance or, to send me an e-mail, so that I can connect them with organizations that are actively attending to these issues.

On the positive side, Rhode Island has been somewhat “out front” with a model innovative program designed to support the state’s fishermen — all of whom have been hit hard since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an effort to connect fishermen with fish consumers,  a collaboration between state employees in the RI Dept. of Environmental Management and staff of the Commercial Fisheries Center of RI (CFCRI https://www.cfcri.org/) and others, has established a “direct buy” program which allows consumers, including both retailers and individuals, to buy directly from the wharves and/or fish buyers.

This is being spoken of as a “pivot” to a supply chain that includes individual consumers, according to Fred Mattera, executive director of CFCRI, who is known to CFN readers as the author of the Safe Boat/Smart Boat columns which appeared in these pages for several years.

How does the Rhode Island program work? 

Consumers and fishermen can use a friendly website to find each other.

On the website, http://www,dem.ri.gov/riseafood/buy.php, consumers navigate to one of five RI counties, click on a county, identify a nearby fish seller, click on the website provided for that seller, and then learn whether or not that seller provides curbside, wharf-based, or  delivery services.

Similarly, fishermen can register themselves as participants in the program.

Within this arrangement, there is a quota on the number of boats that can fish each day and a per-species quota on the pounds of fish they can land per week.  All fish must have been caught within the past 24 hours, and buyers are limited to a minimum of 2 lbsand maximum of 4 lbs of fish per transaction.

The RI direct-buy program involves lobster and white fish, whereas the fish processors are still processing mackerel, herring, butterfish, and squid.

This program has had the effect of diversifying the supply chain for fresh fish and has tapped into an inherent consumer demand for fish as a healthy protein even during times of crisis or economic uncertainty.

To manage traffic and comply with required physical distancing, the state of Rhode Island has marked lanes on the roads to wharves, for example, and marked the 6′ distance that customers must maintain between each other.

The fishing industry is essential, and collaborations among the stakeholders — both public and private — will help us avoid being paralyzed by the pandemic situation.

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>.

 

FISH SAFE

•  Maine is geographically extensive, with a large dependence on fishing and aquaculture, and within counties could possibly take steps to diversify the supply chain.

•  Seafood equipment suppliers, marine suppliers, and processors can and are adjusting to new workplace requirements, but some workers may be at risk for COVID-19.

•  Public/private collaboration, as in the case of Rhode Island, can facilitate the support of fishermen by improving and pivoting to a new supply chain diversity.