What a Short, Strange Trip It’s Been

By Mike Conroy

When I last put finger to keyboard (March 20th) I had not yet “officially” taken the reigns at PCFFA; but the landscape of our industry was changing. In my last article, I opined that California’s commercial fishing industry was in peril. Four weeks later, while I am still fearful for our industry, there are some things we can embrace and see faint glimmers of hope in. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is everything bad we thought it would be – and more. Hopefully, by the time you are reading this, the curve has flattened, and we are able to breathe a little easier.

After the initial shock associated with multiple shelter-at-home orders began to subside, I noticed resolve. Bob Vanasse, from Stove Boat Communications and Saving Seafood, spearheaded industry coordination resulting in letters to the Executive and Legislative branches of governments. These letters presented “measures [which] would help to mitigate the impacts of the public health response to COVID-19 and maintain our critical industry,” and were signed by more than 180 large processors, trade associations, and individual vessel owners from across the country.

President Trump signed the CARES Act into law on March 27th. “Fishery Participants” were appropriated $300,000,000 in assistance to address impacts of COVID-19, a provision that PCFFA supported and promoted. Additionally, the CARES Act included two other programs – the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans – which could be accessed by commercial fishermen and women.

On March 27th, PCFFA submitted a letter to the Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife containing a synthesis of ideas we received from fishermen and fishing community members that will help them prosecute their fisheries in troubled economic times, gain access to new markets, and ensure that our members gain access to federal support via mechanisms in which the state has a role. I have to give credit to the Department; they have been responsive to our requests and continue to work with us in implementing some of these ideas.

A good friend of mine owns a vessel that was three days from the dock when California’s shelter-at-home order went into effect. It was coming in with roughly thirty tons of Bigeye Tuna, Opah and Swordfish onboard. The buyer he had lined up then greatly reduced his order. But through an aggressive social media campaign and fishing community involvement, he was able to turn a potential disaster into a positive. Not only was he able to sell his fish, he did so in multiple channels: the local Saturday fishermen’s market; direct to consumers; to other nearby fishermen’s markets; to other fishermen who were starting to direct market their own catch; and to a Community Supported Fishery. Fishermen helping other fishermen. Credit must also be given to the local community who rallied around him and helped spread the word about the availability of top quality, reasonably priced seafood provided by a local fisherman.

Another good friend of mine is a commercial California spiny lobster fisherman. He noticed the Chinese market begin to soften in late January. While many of his fellow lobstermen decided to call it a season, he had a different plan. He created a website and a social media presence and tried his hand at direct marketing. It started slow; but within a month he was selling out before he returned to the dock, often at a price higher than he had been getting when it was being bought for export. When the lobster fishery closed in mid-March, he then had a network of local fishermen from whom he was buying (including the tuna fisherman mentioned earlier) and his business is booming. Today, he is trying to partner up with other nearby direct marketers to determine how much salmon they will be able to sell when that season opens up in May. The appreciation he sees on the faces of his customers when they get his product has him saying he has no plans on selling to the export market in the future.

These are but two examples of individuals who have shifted their business models in response to highly uncertain times. There are others – many others – spanning the Nation. I wish I had the space to provide their stories; but I challenge the reader to seek them out and take advantage of their offerings. In doing so, you are supporting our local harvesters and the local fishing community.

While there is hope and there are success stories, in some fear still predominates. Fear of uncertainty and fear of the unknown. As noted above, the commercial salmon season opened in May. As roughly eighty percent of locally harvested salmon traditionally ended up in restaurants before the pandemic, a vast majority of the fleet was unable to rely upon historic markets at the start of the season. In speaking to buyers and fishermen, I have heard “we are scrambling,” “it does not look good,” and “we have two weeks to figure it out.” A couple of months ago, there were widespread conversations about delaying, even cancelling, the season because of a lack of markets.

Today, however, the conversations focus on providing an essential food product to the Nation’s seafood consumers and how to do so in a way that is economically viable for everyone. While some fear is still prevalent, there has also been a great deal of hope expressed. Hope that with west coast-wide early actions in implementing social distancing and other mitigation measures, many of our restaurant partners will be up and running by the middle of the summer. Hope that alternative markets, whether direct marketing or increased purchases by co-ops, will be a viable option as we weather this storm.

As we look beyond the impacts of COVID-19 we need to better engage the nation’s seafood consumers in promoting the health aspects of consuming seafood caught by US fishermen and women. We need to show the public that choosing US harvested seafood is an environmentally responsible choice, and that our US fishermen and women, who risked their own health to feed you during this pandemic, are deserving of our thanks and support.

On behalf of a suffering Nation, I want to thank each and every one of you for your tireless efforts in feeding its residents. I sympathize with your struggles and hope you all come out of this healthy and mindful of the essential role you play.

Mike Conroy is the new Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), working out of their combined national office in San Francisco, CA. He can be reached via email to: mike@ifrfish.org, or by phone to (415) 561-5080, or to PCFFA, PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370. PCFFA’s Home Page is at: www.pcffa.org.