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Alaska fisheries and restaurants need immediate relief

  • Author: Leigh Habegger
    | Opinion
    , Laura Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 10
  • Published November 4

Chef Laura Cole instructs Alex Debon at Muse on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Alaska is often referred to as the “seafood powerhouse,” and rightfully so. With more than 50% of our country’s seafood landed here, options for seafood are plentiful — whether you’re looking for a buttery halibut fillet to go with a glass of chardonnay or a cod sandwich and cold beer. But our fishermen and our restaurant partners are struggling because of COVID-19.

In addition to supplying Americans and the world with some of the freshest, most sustainable seafood, the state’s seafood industry created $5.6 billion in total annual economic activity for Alaska in 2018. Fishing is a huge economic driver for the state. But, between March 1 and April 16 of this year, more than half of restaurants in Alaska closed temporarily and more than 80% of restaurant employees were laid off or furloughed. We saw halibut prices cut in half practically overnight.

Nationwide, independent restaurants have lost more jobs than any other industry, affecting 11 million employees within the industry and more than 5 million workers they support in the supply chain. Alaska is no different: Leisure and hospitality have accounted for 38% of all jobs lost in our state during the pandemic. This pandemic directly endangers the 31,800 Alaskans working restaurant and food service jobs, and the countless farmers, fishermmen and other livelihoods that depend on restaurants' supply chains.

Before COVID-19 upended our lives, nearly 70% of all seafood caught was consumed in food service establishments like restaurants and cafeterias. Fishermen have poured time and money into altering operations to ensure a safe fishing season, and restaurants are working hard to reopen safely. But as COVID-19 cases spike again, our future is uncertain.

Indoor dining remains strictly limited to slow the spread of COVID-19. If restaurants like mine, 229 Parks, and the seafood industry are to make it through the winter, we need help from Congress. We are asking Congress to include the RESTAURANTS Act and additional fisheries assistance in the next pandemic relief package.

The reality is restaurants do not need more short-term loans. Instead, we need grants that would help us get through a tough-looking winter.

The bipartisan RESTAURANTS Act, introduced in June by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., would provide $120 billion in grants to independent restaurants — including Alaska restaurants serving seafood from our backyard waters. Economists project that this fund could pour $271 billion back into the economy and reduce unemployment by 2.4%. The legislation now has 213 House co-sponsors and nearly 50 Senate co-sponsors, including Sens. Murkowski and Sullivan. We’re now calling on them to not just support the RESTAURANTS Act, but to push for its passage.

To rebuild Alaska’s economy, commercial fishermen and the seafood industry have asked for no less than an additional $1 billion in fisheries assistance and $2 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase seafood. While Congress has provided an initial tranche of assistance for fishermen, it covers only a fraction of the economic impacts our sector experienced. It has become clear that additional assistance is needed to ensure fishermen can weather this global pandemic. The fisheries assistance program will allow fishermen to pay their bills and boat mortgages, provide for their families, and support our coastal communities despite the significant drop in demand for seafood products. USDA seafood purchases will create demand and get fishermen back out on the water while providing Americans with sustainable and nutritious forms of protein through the agency’s various programs.

Fishermen and restaurants are inextricably linked here in Alaska. Fishing practically runs in our blood and we love nothing more than to share a “fresh off the boat that morning” seafood dish with locals and tourists alike. We ask Congress to help us weather this pandemic so we can get back to what we love: catching and serving the best seafood in the world.

Leigh Habegger is the executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America, which represents thousands of American fishermen committed to sustainable seafood. Laura Cole is the owner and executive chef of 229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern.

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