Pandemic, Changing Markets Pose Challenges for Bering Sea Fisheries

Hauling in the catch in the Bering Sea, photo by Chris Miller/Alaska Seafood. Courtesy of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Harvesters who annually deliver millions of pounds of wild Alaska seafood from the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands are facing new challenges these days: an ongoing global pandemic that has perhaps forever changed the way they operate, and the industry’s markets themselves.

For a second consecutive season, groundfish and shellfish harvesters operating in these often stormy, icy waters are prioritizing their responsibility to keep their employees and the coastal communities they work in safe from the novel coronavirus, while continuing to operate in changing markets.

“The greatest challenge for 2021 is to continue to stay operational across multitudes of fisheries and communities across Alaska, while protecting those communities and our workforce from COVID-19, so that we can continue to provide for a coastal economy in Alaska and meet our commitment as the largest part of the U.S. seafood supply chain,” said Chris Barrows, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

Unexpected, unplanned costs of pandemic protocols and significant disruptions aimed at halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus, while keeping abreast of changing market pitfalls and opportunities, have also been a challenge for the shellfish sector.

“The 2021 crab season has been tough on crabbers so far,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. The loss of the F/V Scandies Rose on New Year’s Eve 2019 has also been on their minds, what with a Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board hearing in late February and early March into the cause of that disaster.

Crab boat crewman
Crab boat crewman in the Bering Sea, photo by Bri Dwyer’. Courtesy of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Collaborative Efforts

Participants in the BSAI fisheries are working closely with health officials to ensure they are following updated federal guidelines and state protocols for COVID-19 mitigation, to protect communities where they work, communities that were devastated by another global viral pandemic just over 100 years ago.

Processors are collaborating with Alaska Department of Health and Social Services officials on mandates and advisories, as well as recommendations from the Washington Department of Health for the seafood industry operating out of Washington.

Industry spokespersons say vaccinating seafood workers is their best option to combat COVID-19 and that they are doing everything they can to proactively stop the spread of the virus.

“The more seafood workers that get vaccinated the better off we all are,” Barrows said.

“This is especially true in communities where we operate that are high risk due to lack of medical capacity and the great diversity of our workforces. We very much appreciate the engagement and support of the community health organizations, medical vaccine providers and community and tribal leadership in the areas that we operate and their support to get vaccines to our workforce,” he said.

While the size of crews on crab boats, five to six people, has not been changed by mitigation protocols, those protocols have made operating more expensive and logistically challenging, Goen said. Those costs borne by processors include 14-day quarantines, chartered flights, hotels, symptom logs and keeping up with ever-changing requirements. Most of the crab fleet was out fishing before the vaccines first became available and they have been in isolation together on their boats, she said.

Meanwhile, offloading of crab has been largely contactless, with crew staying inside the boat while processors come on deck to handle the offload.

“Once our snow crab ends in May, fishermen will be anxious to get home for a break and for those that have not yet, to get vaccinated before the summer salmon tendering season starts for our vessels,” she said.

The overall cost to the fishing industry operating in the BSAI to keep their workers and the communities they work in safe during a pandemic has been huge.

Near the end of 2020, research firm the McDowell Group, now known as the McKinley Research Group, estimated that seafood processing companies’ expenses to comply with COVID protocols in Alaska exceeded $50 million in 2020. Cost estimates for these protocols for the 2021 fisheries will be the subject of a new McKinley group survey in partnership with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Some aid to the industry will come from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed by Congress. The legislation includes funding for grants to help food processors pay for worker health and safety measures, including for seafood processing facilities and processing vessels.

“The unprecedented complexity of adapting operations to the COVID-19 era – and the enormous costs that entailed – is like nothing I’ve seen before in my 40 years in this industry,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association. Still despite the challenges, Madsen added, “I’m extremely proud of how we have responded by getting out in front of the crisis, thinking outside the box, and always prioritizing the safety of workers and communities first.”

“No part of the Alaska seafood supply chain has been left untouched by COVID-19,” said Barrows, “starting from the lost NOAA surveys in 2020 that inform harvest levels, to managing health risks in the processing sector, to adapting to changing delivery logistics and market demand. Our industry is determined to persevere.”

Other big economic issues facing BSAI fisheries in 2021 continue to be changing market conditions and tariffs paid for exported Alaska seafood, while millions of pounds of imported seafood arrive in the United States duty free.

An ASMI report noted that the pandemic contributed to widespread harvest value decline in 2020, with a preliminary estimated drop in ex-vessel value of 20-25%. Widespread closures in the food service sector, including restaurants, and significant shipping disruptions in getting Alaska seafood to market have also occurred.

On the plus side, since the pandemic began millions of Americans are cooking more at home, boosting retail seafood sales significantly, albeit not enough to make up for the loss of industry sales to the food service sector. There is hope though, that consumers will stick with cooking Alaska seafood at home in 2021 and beyond.

“Crab is an easy at-home meal,” said Goen. “King, snow (opilio) and bairdi (Tanner) crab come frozen and already pre-cooked. It just needs to be thawed and, if you like, heated up.” For comfort food, crab can be paired with macaroni & cheese or in a hearty soup or salad, she said.

Overall, Goen said, the crab industry has weathered this pandemic well so far from a market standpoint. “Our snow crab levels were around 30% up this year from last while our king crab harvest levels were around 30% down. With the new state harvest strategy for bairdi in 2020, we should have a more regular season for that fishery, which is promising for the future,” she said. “All in all, given the ups and downs in our Bering Sea crab harvest levels, we hope to stay fairly steady in our revenue stream with continued high demand.”

“We are fortunate to work with great sister associations that share the story of Alaska seafood in such compelling ways,” added Madsen. “ASMI and Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers work overtime to ensure seafood buyers and the broader public understand the characteristics that make Alaska seafood a uniquely compelling product,” she said.

Still, there is competition in the retail market from foreign products competing in retail markets, including farmed salmon.

Giant crab Bering Sea
A worker with a giant crab in the Bering Sea. Photo by Marissa Bush, courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Foreign Competition

The United States Trade Representative (USTR), established as the office of the Special Trade Representative by the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, leads trade negotiations at bilateral and multilateral levels and coordinates trade policy with other government agencies through the Trade Policy Staff Committee and Trade Policy Review Group.

U.S. laws mandate sustainable harvests, safe working conditions and strong environmental outcomes, while at the same time, industry officials contend, the seafood trade playing field has been neither free nor fair. U.S. products face steep tariff and non-tariff barriers entering key export markets, while seafood imports enter the U.S. duty-free. The industry has begun paying close attention to the Biden Administration’s approach to trade policy and is optimistic about growing bipartisan support for the proposition that trade policy should be more supportive of domestic producers.

Under the previous administration, they say, trade challenges in relation to China, the world’s fastest growing seafood market, became far more acute, and Alaska seafood producers made no market-access gains whatsoever with respect to Japan and Europe. As opportunities emerge to negotiate a Phase Two agreement with Japan, or to re-negotiate trade terms with the European Union and United Kingdom, their hope is that the Biden Administration will be ready to prioritize U.S. seafood competitiveness, they said.

Trade parity with Russia, they acknowledge will be a bigger challenge, as the roots of Russia’s embargo on U.S. seafood are tied up with sanctions related to Ukraine and other geopolitical issues that will require a diplomatic solution.

“Consumers the world over demand and deserve access to high quality Alaska seafood,” Madsen said. “Federal trade policy can and must do more to secure the elimination of unfair barriers to trade imposed by Japan, China and Europe. Our industry has too often been ignored or deprioritized by U.S. trade negotiators.”

Madsen also said she sees the advent of the Biden Administration as an opportunity to take a fundamentally different approach.

“Outside of NOAA, the other agencies with additional significant impact on the seafood industry are USTR and USDA,” Barrows said. “We’re trying to build bridges with these agencies in the new Biden Administration so that they can better support Alaska seafood as a global food commodity- receiving sufficient attention from these agencies has been a challenge, even in the recent past,” Barrows said. “We need the programs and authorities of USDA and USTR to help fairly position Alaska seafood with seafood from around the world.”

The crab industry also hopes to work with the Biden Administration to improve traceability of crab from harvest to market, to improve the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program and to require country of origin labeling for crab, said Goen.

“While most seafood entering the U.S. supply chain is required to have country of origin labeling, crab and some other high-risk illegal, unreported and unregulated species are not,” she said. “Given that most seafood in the U.S. is imported, that means that there is opportunity for illegally caught seafood to enter the U.S. market. Without country of origin labeling requirements and without traceability of the product to the end consumer, the value of Alaska crab sees downward pressure due to cheaper caught foreign crab and any IUU crab that has entered the market,” she said.

The Russian embargo on imports from the U.S., in place since 2014, creates an unfair market advantage for Russian seafood over U.S. seafood, she said. At a minimum, the U.S. should look for ways to level the playing field for our own seafood industries, such as imposing tariffs on seafood, she said. While leveling that playing field, however, Goen said that Alaska crabbers do not want to exclude Russian crab from U.S. markets or elsewhere.

That Russian crab is important to maintaining global carb markets because they have larger supplies, she said. “Russia can keep global markets open and viable in times when Alaska crab product is low.”

What Alaska crabbers would like to see is development of a trade strategy that balances U.S.-Russia trade arrangements by exploring tariffs on U.S. imports of foreign crab and removing the Russian embargo, she said.

What else can the federal government do to boost economic prospects for the BSAI fisheries?

Industry officials credit Alaska seafood with being a sustainably, responsibly sourced product with a low carbon footprint and processes such as those through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that apply ecosystem and area-based management tools to respond to changes in ocean and stock conditions. Continued responsible fisheries management requires good science, which requires good data, and that, they said, necessitates a robust and comprehensive NOAA Fisheries survey program critical to facilitating good management decisions.