NOAA Fisheries needs to declare a fishery disaster for the north Atlantic fisheries of the east coast due to complications caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. Due to government shutdowns of the primary market for US seafood, the restaurants, the fishing industry has been suffering not from a shortage of fish, but from a shortage of markets to sell them. 70% of the sea food consumed in the United States is sold in restaurants, the Corona pandemic has caused complete shutdowns of indoor dining in many states or reduced capacity seating in others. This has resulted in no demand for fresh local US caught fish, a very perishable product, and the resultant low prices that haven’t been seen in 50 years. This week the Trump administration announced a program that would help fishermen that have been negatively impacted by retaliatory tariffs on exported seafood. This is a good first step, but much more needs to be done. The United States imports over 80% of the seafood consumed nationally, and many of the countries that we import from have little or no fishery regulations, while US fishermen have been hamstrung with the most stringent regulations in the world. It’s tough to compete against government subsidized fleets that have no regulations or regard for the marine environment. It’s time to put those countries on the same regulatory page as US fishermen.

Sustainable fisheries is what we have been pursuing for the last 30 years and the US has done a terrific job of rebuilding depleted stocks, unfortunately while doing so, market demand forced seafood dealers to look else where for product, and they found plenty of cheap seafood available from other countries that had no regulations, and in many cases were involved in outright illegal fishing practices. Once its imported here, who cares where it came from, as long as they made money, they looked the other way. An analogy can certainly be made comparing the shift in US seafood consumption from domestic production to mostly imported, to the shift in manufacturing jobs brought on by bad trade deals such as NAFTA. The end result is a net loss of good productive American jobs. When the National Marine Fishery Service was created back in 1976 with the creation of the Magnuson Act 80% of the seafood consumed in this country was domestically produced. In less then fifty years that figure has been turned on its head and now 80% is imported.

Last week I sent an email to Mike Pentony, Assistant Administrator of GARFO, and to Chris Moore the Executive director of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council, with a request to forward the email to all MAFMC members, of which Chris did. The email requested that emergency action be taken to reduce the quota of Summer Flounder for the remainder of this year because prices have been dropping like a stone since the beginning of September and there is still millions of pounds of Summer flounder not yet caught this year. Prices have dropped in half in less then two weeks and will continue to drop as Virginia and North Carolina reopen their fisheries with large trip limits that under normal circumstances the market could absorb, but with the Covid closures will totally collapse the market. Fish that were selling for $4.00 a pound in August are now selling for $1.50, and will drop much further by the end of September and October probably becoming .50 to .75 cents a pound, and even less. Considering the expenses involved in catching those fish that amounts to a broker, where no one makes any money except the dock, for packing charges, and the boat owner who takes it from the top.

Northeast Atlantic fishermen, both commercial and recreational, have suffered from reduced catches for years in order to rebuild over fished stocks, and now that we have, we find we have no market for them despite the fact that we have a huge unemployment problem throughout our country, thanks to China, [not only for their spreading the virus, but their unfair trade practices] resulting in record demand for food banks and other charities. In my email I recommended that Virginia, North Carolina, and New Jersey voluntarily reduce their quota of Summer Flounder for the rest of the year by 33 to 50% to reduce the glut on the market that is going to get worse this fall. While this sounds like a nice idea, getting the states to agree to do that voluntarily is probably impossible, for a number of reasons not the least of which is that many northern states will use this as justification to further their attempted resource grab from the historical participants. To be clear the problem is not that we can’t catch the fish, its that we have no where to sell them unless we are willing to work for nothing or even less if you can’t cover expenses. I did mention in that email that perhaps the government could step in and purchase fish for use in schools, prisons or other institutions. Apparently that has already happened as the USDA has agreed to purchase thirty million dollars worth of shrimp to help shore up the shrimp industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately no one on the east coast has stepped forward and offered to do the same for our fisheries that are on the verge of financial disaster thanks to Covid. So unless something is done quickly, the prices of two premium species, Summer Flounder, and Black Sea Bass are going to be so low they will become uncatchable. This scenario is further complicated by the lack of market for Whiting and Loligo Squid, both fisheries that are also presently devastated by lack of demand for product thanks to the pandemic.

I’m sure that New England groundfishermen are in the same boat in regard to reduced market for their product and the resultant horrible prices, that will soon bankrupt many in the industry regardless of PPP money. Fishermen want to catch fish and feed the public, that’s what makes this job enjoyable, the fact that we feed people. But to do that we risk our lives everyday, and we certainly should be compensated fairly for our hard work and stress it puts not only on the individual fisherman, but their family that depends on them. So what we need is a few of our elected officials to push the
USDA into creating a similar program as the Gulf shrimp fisheries have been granted through the CARES Act. A program that can buy millions of pounds of Summer Flounder, Black sea Bass, Loligo Squid and other species to provide seafood to those in need could prevent the collapse of the industry that will otherwise take place. While Suzie homemaker has used these quarantine times to increase their cooking skills, they have ignored cooking seafood at home for some reason. When the Fishery management councils were created along with the Magnuson Act they were also joined by regional fishery development commissions whose job it was to increase US seafood consumption through educational and other efforts. These were defunded by the 1990’s and ever since, our seafood imports have enormously increased. Is there a correlation between the two? Maybe some professional grant writer might want to look into that. In the meantime we need the US government to step up to the plate and save the industry from the Covid disaster they are facing by finding willing plates to serve US produced seafood on.

Thank You, Jim Lovgren