Update of June 26, 2020: The CDC today published new guidelines designed to protect workers at seafood processing facilities and fishing vessels off the coronavirus. For fishermen, the guidelines suggest that employers consider quarantining fishermen for two weeks before departure, in order to identify potential cases of COVID-19 before leaving the dock.
Earlier this month, President Trump visited Maine to announce his intention to reopen a vast marine reserve, created by President Obama in 2016, to the commercial fishery. While ostensibly aimed at helping New England anglers catch more fish and grow their businesses, anglers in Maine – and anglers in the United States – are grappling with a sobering reality that the president’s controversial plan won’t solve: they can’t sell their fish.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, only half the fish harvested by Maine fishermen in May were sold, and prices were on average 18 percent lower than in May of the previous year. Landings have also fallen by more than half, to 44,495 pounds, as many fishermen do not go out to sea while the restaurants that are their main markets remain closed.
“It has been a difficult task over the past two months,” says Ben Martens, executive director of Fishermen’s Association of the Coast of Maine, emotion rises in his voice. “It’s really scary right now, with the market and COVID, and thinking about how we are protecting fishing heritage.”
For Martens, the president’s visit was a missed opportunity to address the real issues facing Maine fishermen. Very few, he says, have even fished in the Northeast Canyon and Seamounts expanse of deep ocean before Obama designated it a marine monument to protect its fragile ecosystem and the sea turtles, mammals and other life forms it harbors.
Since March, Martens’ organization has been helping Maine fishermen create business plans that will build the resilience of their future as they face a host of challenges including pandemic, climate change, competition. for ocean resources and uncertainty about pending regulations to protect the endangered right whale.
Small-scale fishermen in coastal communities across the United States, from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska, continue to face daunting challenges during the pandemic. Recent political actions, including the reopening of Northeast Canyons, last month’s presidential decree on aquaculture, and coronavirus relief programs passed by Congress, have failed to resolve the issues or provide real support. .
And they are not alone. A recent Conservation International Report highlights how small-scale fishers around the world, many of whom already suffer from food and livelihood insecurity, face an uncertain future.
Market disruptions and fishery closures; increased risk of COVID-19 infection when working nearby on small boats; and climate change stressors – from storms and ocean acidification to changes in fish populations – are creating extreme hardship among artisanal fishermen. This group contributes half of the world’s catches and provides social, economic and cultural benefits to coastal communities.
“Let’s put money in the hands of fishermen so they can pay their bills, but also build a system more resilient to the next global health pandemic looming on the horizon.”
Bright light highlighted by Conservation International — and previously reported by Civil Eats—Is an increase in the number of fishermen selling directly to consumers, whether at the dock, online or through community-supported fisheries. While many see direct sales as a stopgap measure to help fishermen get through the season, some fishing groups want to use the momentum they have gained to solidify consumer preferences for locally caught seafood and harvested from the wild, and away from imported farmed fish.
But, as the report points out, artisanal 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 put money in the hands of fishermen so that they can pay their bills,” says Eric Brazer, deputy manager, Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance. “But let’s also see how we build a system that is more resilient to the next global health pandemic that looms on the horizon.” For Brazer, this means investing in “better infrastructure and functional waterfronts, and a stronger seafood supply chain”, as well as including more seafood in purchasing programs. products of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a national effort to promote consumption of American seafood.
Yesterday Trump signed a decree which added the lobster industry to USDA’s $ 30 billion farm bailout fund, aimed at supporting food producers affected by its trade war with China; it is not known how much of this money will end up in the hands of the lobster boats, and experts believe it is unlikely to make a long-term difference in the economic viability of the industry.
Fishermen in distress
Most American fishermen are self-employed, which means that if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. They are “among the working class in our country who are the lowest paid, the most likely to die on the job and the most likely to go without health insurance,” said JJ Bartlett, executive director of Fishing partnership, a non-profit organization that supports 20,000 New England fishing families.
All of the fishing groups Civil Eats spoke to said few or none of their members were able to access the US Small Business Administration pandemic. Paycheque Protection Program Where Economic disaster loan programs because the typical employment structure of a fishing crew did not allow it.
And while $ 300 million has been paid to fishermen through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), “fishermen have yet to see a dime of this.” , explains Brazer. In early May, the Ministry of Commerce allocated money to states, who now decide how to distribute funds fairly to fishermen.
For Brazer, it has been a frustrating process. “No one will tell us how the states are going to distribute this money to the fishermen. We had to contact the Gulf States to tell them, “Here are some guidelines, some things you should consider whenever you are about to figure out, but fishermen who desperately need them are getting economic relief,” he says. .
Beyond the delay in putting money in the pockets of fishermen, fishermen’s groups, while grateful for the support, say it is not enough.
Seth Rolbein, director of Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, says, “$ 28 million won’t solve big problems,” of the funds given to Massachusetts. “Once it’s distributed among everyone it’s hard to see the impact it will have. “