Impacts to New England’s Commercial Fisheries
As part of the GRI Whitepaper Series, GRI has released 10 Special Investigation Reports supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These reports bring together analysis and policy recommendations in cross-cutting critical areas including municipal and state budgets, housing, food, healthcare, K-12 education, childcare, higher education, small business, energy, and fisheries. Each sector-specific report was authored by subject matter experts of these areas from GRI’s Northeastern Faculty Affiliates and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, providing an in-depth, accessible review of the challenges, opportunities and actionable policy considerations in each area facing the COVID-19 crisis.
I. How have New England commercial fishing communities been impacted by COVID-19?
COVID-19 continues to have severe socioeconomic impacts on New England’s commercial fishing communities. All facets of New England fisheries have been disrupted. In addition to the commercial fishers themselves, the dealers, processors, distribution, labor and consumer demand have been severely impacted. The loss of consumer demand for seafood was driven to a large degree by the closure of restaurants starting in March as a large proportion of seafood is consumed in restaurants in the U.S. In addition, disruption to other aspects of New England’s seafood supply chain impacted New England’s fisheries, such as the closure of the cruise-line industry and casinos also had enormous impacts on the lobster fishery. The lack of demand for seafood has resulted in the value of groundfish, lobsters, elvers, oysters, seaweed, softshell clams, and scallops dropping by 30-75%, resulting in large quantities of lost revenue. In many cases, prices were so low that fishers chose to fish less or not at all. Seafood companies have also spent heavily on COVID response efforts, and many have been forced to furlough workers.
Of further concern is that the major disruptions to New England’s seafood industry are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It is unclear when restaurants will return to buying large volumes of seafood given the largely reduced numbers of in person diners. Major seafood buyers like Red Lobster and the cruise-line industry may not fully recover, which would require the American lobster and other New England fisheries to develop new markets for their products. Furthermore, seafood processing plants in New England typically rely on large amounts of manual labor, hampering the ability of processors to process large quantities of seafood during the past couple of months due to social distancing requirements. And while some members of New England fisheries reported that a small proportion of the industry was able to use ecommerce effectively to sell their product, there is not currently the demand for fisheries (especially those that land larger volumes of seafood) to completely transition to these approaches without redesigning seafood supply chains and educating consumers throughout the U.S.