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Business/Economy

US seafood industry gets $300 million in coronavirus relief, hopes for more protections

The U.S. seafood industry received a $300 million assist from the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress on March 27, and a wide coalition of industry stakeholders is hoping for more.

Fishery recipients in the relief bill include tribes, persons, communities, processors, aquaculture and other related businesses. SeafoodNews.com reports that those eligible for relief must have “revenue losses greater than 35 percent as compared to the prior 5-year average revenue, or any negative impacts to subsistence, cultural, or ceremonial fisheries.”

The funds will be provided on a rolling basis within a fishing season through Sept. 30, 2021. Two percent can be used for administration and oversight activities.

The package follows a bipartisan letter sent on March 23 to Congress by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markie of Massachusetts and Alaska’s Republican Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan. They asked, among other things, that fishermen be able to collect unemployment insurance, get help with vessel loan payments and ensure that the global pandemic does not compromise management of U.S. fisheries.

Also last week a coalition of nearly 200 seafood stakeholders sent a 12-page letter to the White House and Congress asking the government to purchase at least $2 billion worth of seafood and provide another $1.5 billion in relief for businesses and fishing communities.

The letter states that nearly 70% of the more than $102 billion that consumers paid for U.S. fishery products in 2017 was spent in dining out as opposed to eating at home. As a result, they said, for many fisheries the sudden shutdown of restaurants and other storefronts has caused demand to evaporate overnight, “threatening the economic viability of the entire supply chain.”

Undercurrent News reported that the letter also asks the government to appropriate a minimum of $500 million to purchase surplus seafood that can be shipped overseas or supplied to U.S. hospitals and state and local government programs.

And while the Department of Homeland Security has declared that fishermen and processing workers are “essential critical infrastructure,” the letter asks that support staff also receive the same designation in order to continue operations amid any self-quarantine orders.

The stakeholders also urge the government to launch a “Buy American” campaign to promote consumption of seafood, along with expedited visa plans that will help to quickly staff and reopen businesses and fishing operations when travel restrictions are reduced.

Meanwhile, in Alaska the Governor’s Economic Stabilization Task Force is organizing a fisheries subcommittee to address safety provisions. Staff at the office of Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) is in contact with the Dunleavy administration about forming groups to report on the needs of each region.

Fish for the needy - Eighteen truckloads of over half a million pounds of donated breaded pollock portions went to 16 food banks in 12 states this month, and more seafood is on its way.

“We did a press release and it’s actually grown to the point that another company, Gorton’s Seafood, has come up with 120,000 pounds at cold storages around the country. Our donors are so generous and everybody’s calling and asking how they can help. It’s rewarding to be in this business right now,” said Jim Harmon, executive director of SeaShare, a nonprofit that works with fishermen, processors, logistics and distribution partners to provide top quality seafood to Feeding America, a network of 200 large food banks in every state that services up to 500 smaller agencies.

SeaShare dates back to the early 1990s, when Bering Sea industry members banded together to turn mandatory discards of groundfish (bycatch) into frozen portions for food banks.

“We’ve been doing it for 25 years and grown to the point where bycatch represents only about 10% of our total donations,” Harmon said.

Products have broadened to include a wide variety of species, such as salmon, shrimp, rockfish, halibut, catfish, and tilapia. Most are frozen although canned and other shelf stable items are included.

SeaShare also distributes seafood throughout Alaska, where industry donations have put freezers in hub centers such as Bethel, Dillingham and Juneau. The fish is then sent to over 30 remote communities.

During the coronavirus crisis the less fortunate are especially at risk, Harmon said, and SeaShare is getting requests for fish from all over the world.

Anyone with products available in any quantity as a donation or at a low cost is encouraged to contact SeaShare as it has some resources to help access seafood that might not be available for free.

“We’re asking everyone we know to pull on the oar with us,” Harmon said. “We’re hoping that getting the message out about the 18 truckloads of pollock and the 120,000 pounds from Gorton’s will resonate with others and get people thinking about how they can get on board.”

“I’m so thankful and proud of our seafood partners who really come together when emergencies happen. It also takes financial support along with the efforts by seafood processors and fishermen,” Harmon added.

A donation of just $1 provides eight servings of seafood. www.seashare.org

PWS aims to expand fisheries - Prince William Sound’s Tanner crab fishery has been underway since March 2 for the third year running. Sixteen boats have pulled up more than 54,000 pounds so far fetching $3.50 a pound. That’s about half of last year’s 124,000 pound catch.

“Things are going well and we’ll just let it click along and we’ll be monitoring it every day,” said Jan Rumble, PWS and Cook Inlet manager for shellfish and groundfish for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game at Homer. A test fishery also is underway in unfished areas in hopes of eventually expanding the Tanner fishery.

“We're collecting information and we're hoping to combine that with our trawl survey data and historical harvest information to provide a more expansive harvest strategy than what we have in regulation currently,” Rumble said.

Tanner crab fishermen also are recording the numbers and where they pull up golden king crab to provide more data for a potential fishery. Goldens appear to be on an upswing in some areas, but no stock assessments have been done since 2006. Two proposals to open a commercial fishery were denied this month by the Board of Fisheries but Rumble said ADF&G and local harvesters are committed to gathering more information.

ADF&G already manages 25 shellfish and groundfish fisheries in the region and there’s no money in the budget for surveys, but Rumble said a test fishery, hopefully this year, might help get the data they need.

“People bid on the test fishery and that could provide us with revenue where we could send observers aboard a vessel to collect biological and abundance information. So that's kind of the route we're pursuing right now,” she said.

Another potential fishery for Prince William Sound is sea cucumbers. Rumble, a former diver for the state’s largest cuke fishery in Southeast Alaska, is working with local fishermen on a pilot survey for this summer.

“With dive fisheries, you're allowed to tax the product, it’s in the state statutes. So that creates a situation where you are providing funds for stock assessment through the taxation of the fishery,” she explained. “If things go well with the survey, we're hoping to expand it throughout the Sound, and to continue stock assessments and development by using proceeds from anything that's sold.”

In 2018, sea cucumbers in Alaska averaged $5.29 per pound and a harvest of roughly 1.4 million pounds was valued at $7.4 million to divers.

Up next in Prince William Sound is the popular pot shrimp season starting in mid-April with a harvest of 68,100 pounds.

Registration is open through April 1 and shrimpers must first get a Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission card before they sign up with ADF&G. The big spot shrimp can pay fishermen $10 to $16 per pound in what Rumble calls a very local fishery.

“We provide shrimp to people on the street and people sell it through Facebook and to local restaurants,” she said. “It’s local sales that drive this fishery and I think that we would all say that we’re pretty proud of it.”

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