A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing signs of worry about the food supply. Meatpacking plants have closed due to high rates of infection among workers. Farmers plow crops under and pour thousands of gallons of milk down the drain. Closer to home, grocery workers, now seen as essential, face a higher-than-average risk of contracting the virus.
So far though, we’ve heard very little about the fishing industry or its workers. That might be because reports on the fishing industry tend to replace workers with what they produce, gauging the health of the industry in tons of catch and how demand affects prices. But in concentrating on those numbers, industry portraits erase multiple factors that shape fishing and affect fishing industry workers.
Talk of rising catch hides the depletion of wild stocks, for example, an ongoing problem. The Gulf of Maine hasn’t allowed shrimping since 2013, and this year it banned any catch whatsoever–even for monitoring–in a last-ditch attempt to save shrimp from extinction in the region. That follows on the heels of the collapse of cod and cod fishing all along the northeast coast of the United States. Head to the northwest corner of the country and you’ll hear that wild salmon stocks are retreating at a rapid rate, so fishing boats based in Gig Harbor, Washington, now have to make the long trek to Alaska to find fish every spring.
Depletion is tied to a larger and somewhat more abstract concern: the environment. The Gulf of Maine is the fastest-warming body of water on our climate-changing planet, and everyone in the lobster business knows it. Meanwhile, down along the coast of Louisiana oyster producers tell you that their marshes are disappearing more rapidly than any coastal area in the United States. Add to that an unprecedented volume of fresh water flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi due to massive rains and run off out of the West and mid-West in 2019. All this in a fishery still dealing with the impact of the BP Horizon explosion and pollution.
Finally, global socio-economic issues are directly affecting independent fishers. Speaking of lobstering in Maine, National Fisherman’s “Yearbook” notes that after 2018 tariffs, lobster exports to China dropped by 46 percent. Politics, economics, the environment—clearly, the seafood industry involves more than just how much fishers catch.
All of this affects the industry’s workers. As Keith R. Criddle writes in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, we should think about fishing in terms of “conditions that promote social and economic well-being, viable resource dependent communities, and an institutional structure that allows for evolution of socio-ecological systems.”
Fishery workers, like others in the food chain, face new threats because of the coronavirus, which will likely create a long-term disruption in the seafood trade. The prices that fishers were getting at the dock from wholesalers and processors were already depressed by those tariffs. That problem has now combined with COVID-induced shifts in the public’s struggle to answer what’s for dinner tonight. Seafood may not be a ready answer, even where available.
In response, state governors and legislators quickly began pursuing federal assistance for their community-based seafood industries. But although desperately needed, support for continuing production will not solve other hidden problems. Like farmers who are forced to dump milk or plow crops under, fishers need to sell what they catch, and that is not happening. Instead, as Keith Decker noted in early April, even lobster, “the highest-value fishery” has seen wholesale prices fall dramatically.
Effects of this virus-induced decline will likely be felt long into the summer as fishers and their communities face a drop in summer travel, a prime market for fresh seafood. That will be a damaging blow to fishing and tourist-focused towns, one not likely to be offset by the opening of state economies. In short, the ongoing pandemic is combining with long-standing challenges in the industry to add force to a wave building on the horizon–one that will further disrupt the lives of fishers.
Nor can fishers count on the CARES act to provide much help, even though it breaks enormous precedent in allowing self-employed and gig workers to collect unemployment. Those payments are stop-gap at best, and many are being swallowed up by large corporations. As Robert Vanasse of Saving Seafood notes, the $300 million allotted for commercial fishing is “a large amount of money” but, given the scale of the industry, “it will not go far enough.” Without more aid, Vanasse argues, boats will remain at the dock, and “the downturn could drive thousands of commercial fishers, many of them third- or fourth-generation operations, into bankruptcy and adversely affect coastal communities around the country.”
COVID aside, most of the threats to the fishing industry are not new. But they are all complicated by another aspect of the industry: the very independence fishers pride themselves on often means that they suffer when it comes to federal and state aid. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, government relief relied on formulas that often did not match well with the fishing activities of independent producers. Many small, family-owned businesses were disadvantaged by the very process of assessing damages, a situation not likely to go away anytime soon.
All of which makes clear why we need to consider not just how much fish and seafood is caught but also how lost work affects peoples’ lives. Numbers alone can’t tell the whole story. For other food industries, we have dramatic videos of milk being dumped and crops being plowed under. News reports regularly remind us that it is not only food but farmers’ livelihoods being destroyed. Fishing families face a similar future, but we don’t have visuals to tell their story. Idle boats don’t carry much dramatic impact. But like many invisible dangers, those worker-less boats are symptoms, physical markers of lives and livelihoods being uprooted and quite possibly damaged beyond repair.
James V. Catano
James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy: Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor of English and Director of the Screen Arts Program at Louisiana State University.