Shelter in place - and eat some fish

Author: Theresa Talley

Add local seafood to your shelter-in-place menu and help our fishing industry weather the COVID-19 pandemic storm

March 23, 2020

While domestic fishing per se is not affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the outbreak has had a big effect on the industry. There has been a loss of both overseas markets and domestic buyers associated with the closure of restaurants and institutions under necessary “shelter in place” orders. The result has been reports of freshly caught fish piling up in boat holds and processing plant storage freezers with nowhere to go as the seafood supply chain screeches to a halt.

Other businesses that support fishing, but that are considered “non-essential” have had to halt operations which has affected processing and distribution of seafood, and the supply of needed materials such as fuel, ice, boat and gear parts.

In the longer term, there is uncertainty about the future of industry—which businesses, such as restaurants, will survive? Once the businesses along a food supply chain close, the supply chain breaks down and it cannot quickly or easily be started up again. There is concern that this gap in supply would quickly be filled by inexpensive imports, further increasing our seafood trade deficit.

The pandemic has created a crucial juncture for the US fishing industry, with the directions we head dependent upon how the fishing industry is supported.

rockfish on ice local seafood
Add local seafood to your shelter-in-place menu and help our fishing industry weather the COVID-19 pandemic storm. Photo: Fred Greaves

We could quickly lose ground in decades-long efforts to revitalize the country’s fishing industry-including the loss of a disproportionate number of small fishing operations, which often don’t have the financial or social capital to adapt or weather the market fluctuations. Many groups will be vying for a finite amount of assistance, and seafood imports will carry on so that consumers, who are often content with inexpensive imports, will continue to get seafood resulting in the loss of many of valuable domestic fishing businesses. 

This juncture also offers opportunities to local food systems. For example, direct marketing of local and diverse products could, out of necessity for safe local food, progress farther in a few months than it has over the last several or more years. Fishermen who are already engaged in direct marketing to consumers are selling out. Those who do not have direct connections and who have been selling all of their catch to buyers may not be doing as well since many of the buyers’ clients include restaurants and institutions, which are shut down now.  Even marketing a small portion of one’s harvest seems to contribute to success of fishing businesses- whether in times of crisis or not. And there are benefits to seafood processors and communities because of the increased supplies of fresh seafood and the consumer enthusiasm and demand that surround fishermen’s markets.

It’s a crucial time for whole fishing communities, which include fishermen and aquafarmers, associated government and private groups, and the public, to organize and orchestrate efforts that put our producers first. The industry has quickly banded together to request assistance from the president and congress.

We as individuals or families can also help.  Add local seafood to your shelter-in-place menu!

Establishing strong local seafood supply chains will benefit us now and into the future, as a reliable source of safe, responsibly sourced seafood under “normal” conditions and to have it in place in the face of future crises.  Read more: Local seafood availability and benefits

(Remember to follow distancing and hand-washing guidelines during and after your visit to a market.)

Read more about how the coronavirus crisis is affecting the US fishing industry and how we are responding.

Resources for fishermen

Written by California Sea Grant Extension Specialist Theresa Talley