Looking Ahead at 2022: COVID-19 Plods On

Young rockfish hovering over a reef
Young rockfish hovering over a reef. Photo via Pacific Fishery Management Council.

While the ripple effects of the coronavirus continued to be felt throughout 2021, officials have told Fishermen’s News that the direct impact on the fishing industry in the year to come will be difficult to ascertain.

Numerous offices were closed in 2021 and personnel continued to work out of their homes, as many West Coast fishermen continued to ply their trade in order to feed their region’s burgeoning human population.

“Fishermen are hardy people,” said Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Portland. “They kept fishing.”

Nonetheless, the pandemic’s reach was felt in the industry, slowing operations on various levels.

“Tracking down exact reasons becomes a bit difficult,” said NOAA Affiliate, Jim Seger. “For the commercial fishery, constraints could happen on the processing and marketing end or on the harvesting end. It was a bit easier (and the changes were more pronounced) in 2020, when observer availability, among other things, was more challenging.”

Low catch levels of certain species prompted NOAA to issue an emergency rule to extend the sablefish primary fishery season from Oct. 31 to Dec. 31, 2021, with the extension pertaining to limited entry, fixed gear, sablefish-endorsed vessels fishing off Washington, Oregon and California.

“We responded to the disruptions caused by the pandemic by extending the season for the sablefish fishery,” Milstein said. “Many of the vessels that participate in this fishery [also] fish in Alaska and were behind schedule because of delays there. As of September they had not harvested half of what they can catch. Because they had not had time during the regular season to harvest their limits, we extended the fishery.”

NOAA’s emergency rule stated that as of mid-September 2021, more than half of sablefish primary fishery vessels were below 50% of normal attainment levels for the time of year, and that the under-attainment is attributed to operational delays in the Alaska fisheries, in which many sablefish primary vessels also participate.

This was attributed to unforeseen delays related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that have resulted in management problems for the harvesting fleet, processors and sales managers to catch, process, and market sablefish in a timely manner within the current primary fishery season.

“This action is necessary to provide operational flexibility for vessels in the sablefish primary fishery to fully harvest their catch limits despite high economic uncertainty in 2021,” the rule stated in part.

Another safeguard NOAA put in place to deal with possible repercussions of the virus was to allow increased flexibility in the hake (whiting) fishery which operates on the west coast of the United States and Canada.

“This allowed for vessels to serve in more than one role during the season in the event the pandemic took some out of service,” Milstein explained.

Pacific Hake doesn’t keep well, so it is usually processed immediately at sea.

NOAA stated that in the event a processing vessel must cease or change operations resulting from, or to avoid, a COVID-19 outbreak onboard, the emergency measures would provide flexibility to allow other vessels to process catch that at-sea whiting fishing vessels would not otherwise be able to deliver.

This action, according to NOAA, would help promote health and human safety by allowing processing vessels to quarantine, while minimizing economic harm to at-sea whiting catcher-vessels while they operate under continued risk and economic uncertainty during the ongoing pandemic.

Oregon commercial fishing landings and revenue
Oregon commercial fishing landings and revenue. Source: Oregon Employment Department, PacFin and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fishery Closures

The fishing industry not only has to deal with natural phenomena constantly, but man-made situations as well. In early October 2021, an oil spill in Orange County, California, prompted authorities to place a ban on all commercial and recreational fishing within a stretch of about 20 miles along the shore, extending to six miles out to sea.

The Los Angeles Times reported that an oil pipeline off Huntington Beach leaked thousands of gallons into the Pacific Ocean, putting a chokehold on the livelihoods of commercial fishermen and aquafarms as well.

With these types of situations, even when the area is deemed fishable, the impact of potential contamination could linger for months.

As these circumstances continue to loom for the industry, it’s impossible to predict if any fisheries will have to be shut down during 2022.

“With respect to the coming year, there are not any closures expected due to COVID,” Seger said.

Oregon annual average commercial fishing employment by species
Oregon’s annual average commercial fishing employment by species. Source: Oregon Employment Department and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Species Impacts

Seger noted that as far as other changes for the coming year, beyond normal actions and ongoing development and implementation of new regulatory initiatives, the main new factor impacting the fisheries will be the declaration that a near-shore rockfish stock is overfished, the quillback rockfish in California.

“This will likely result in increased constraints in the nearshore groundfish fishery for both recreational and commercial fisheries,” he predicted.

Quillback was expected to be declared overfished through the Pacific Fishery Management Council process with official action at the November 2021 Council meeting.

“Monitoring occurs in the same way that we monitor total mortality for our various stocks,” Seger explained. “If no retention of quillback is allowed, then at-sea observer data will be one of the important sources of mortality estimates.”

“We expect more conservative management of quillback in Oregon next year (the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is recommending non-retention),” Seger added. “There will likely be more conservative management of copper, quillback and vermilion coastwide next year. Sablefish is on the upswing.”

“For salmon, we usually have to wait until pre-season report (number) one, which comes out in February,” noted Robin Ehlke, NOAA’s salmon staff officer.

Calamari on the Move

One occurrence continuing to make news within the industry is the northward migration of squid on the West Coast.

“Fisheries in Oregon and Washington state were doing well with squid catches (in 2021), due to warmer waters expanding into northern areas, and the squid following the warmer water,” Milstein said. “This was noted by surveys on Washington coast research ships who (that) keep track of the levels of different species.”

A report issued in March on the state of Oregon commercial fishing states that in 2020, market squid harvest shot up 108% to $6 million, the highest it’s been since at least 2003.

“This may herald the establishment of a new important fishery for Oregon since it is now more valuable than the salmon fishery,” states the report, which was written by Erik Knoder, a regional economist with the state’s employment department.

“Squid have shown up strong in Oregon waters the last couple of years,” Kerry Griffin, NOAA’s coastal pelagic species staff officer, confirmed to Fishermen’s News. “There’s speculation it could be part of the northward shift of some stocks due to climate change.”