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Fisheries and COVID-19: It’s stormy out there

Article Reviewed: Julie Sorensen, Jessica Echard, and Rebecca Weil, “From Bad to Worse: The Impact of COVID-19 on Commercial Fisheries Workers,” Journal of Agromedicine, September 12, 2020, 1–4, https://doi.org/10.1080/1059924X.2020.1815617.

Fishing is a risky proposition

boat on ocean in sunset with bird above

Given the pandemic, commercial fishing is entering uncertain waters (Image source: MariaCarla F on Flickr).

Here’s the thing: fishing was a dangerous and high-risk occupation well before COVID-19 came on the scene. 

First off, there’s the physical danger. Fishers work in close proximity to wild oceans and powerful machinery, and that means that small mistakes can have fatal consequences. In 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked the commercial fishing industry among the nation’s most dangerous occupations, with job-related death rates only second to logging. Heavy labor means acute and chronic injuries are often part of the work, as well.

The danger associated with being a commercial fisher is more than physical. Economically, fisheries markets are notoriously volatile, with unexpected booms and busts in demand. Alongside fluctuating fish populations, shifting regulations, and high costs of fuel and bait, the economic side of fishing can be risky, too. Dealing with this long-term can take a significant mental toll.

Of course, fishing also has a lot of positive elements, and many fishers choose this career fully aware of the dangers it can carry. Few could have anticipated the impact of something like a global pandemic. And, according to authors of a recent study on the impact of COVID-19 on commercial fishing, those impacts are here, and they’re striking.

COVID-19 impacts the act of fishing

People in water safety train

Because of the pandemic, important in-water safety trainings have had to be cancelled. (Image source: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Nate Littlejohn)

To understand the challenges that face fisheries under COVID-19, the authors relied on a diverse set of informants. Some social scientists have started distributing surveys to fishing communities about COVID impacts, while government officials and NGOs are working hard to respond to these challenges as they appear. Fishers themselves are taking the brunt of adaptation, finding new ways to catch fish and sell their catch in a changed landscape. The authors of this study reached out to people in all of these sectors, combining what they learned into a more complete picture of how the pandemic is impacting commercial fisheries.

One of the most-immediate dangers of the pandemic is transmission on fishing ships. Fishing boats are tight on space. Fishers working in teams often have to squeeze past each other to set gear, haul nets, and handle catch. Plus, many fisheries operate on multi-day trips, and crew members eat and sleep in tight communal quarters.

Some fishers have responded to the increased risk by cutting back on crew and making do with fewer hands on deck. Others chose just to fish with family members. 

Trying to fish with too-few crew members can pose risks. Many activities— whether that’s hauling heavy gear or navigating the boat late into the night— are easier when the labor can be shared. Plus, authors found that fishers had less access to safety trainings this year. In a usual year, NGOs run face-to-face safety workshops, where fishers can learn how to respond to things like falling overboard or getting lost at sea. This year, workshops had to be cancelled. One NGO estimates more than 1000 fishers were forced to miss potentially-lifesaving trainings.

COVID-19 impacts the markets

When it comes to commercial fishing, it’s just as important to sell the fish as it is to catch it. That became challenging as the pandemic took off, too.

Fish sales dropped early in the pandemic. A major reason for this is that American consumers tend to eat seafood at restaurants, rather than at home. When restaurants closed, so did an important outlet for fish. International fish trade was disrupted too. In response to the pandemic, many international flights and transits were halted, and that sharply limited the ability for fish traders to reach markets outside of their local areas.

In response, many fishers have attempted to build direct-to-consumer marketing and sales. Direct-to-consumer sales bypass middlemen like restaurants and distributors, offering a way for fishers to sell their catch straight to the people eating it. But this option takes a lot of work. Adding seafood sales to the end of a day of seafood catch doubled the labor fishers needed to do to bring in an income. Researchers at Rutgers found that some fishers started working 16-18 hour days when the pandemic started, so they could catch and sell fish on the same day.

What can be done about these challenges? 

promotional image from Eat Seafood America campaign

Seafood campaigns are encouraging consumers to support fishers during an uncertain time. (Image source: Eat Seafood America! Campaign)

Authors of the study outline a number of ways to support the fishing industry as the pandemic continues. 

On the financial front, additional government relief from sources like the CARES Act or Small Business Assistance loans can help fill in the income gaps for fishers. These programs are increasingly being made more flexible, which can help make it easier for fishers to apply and receive funding. 

Efforts to increase demand for seafood products may also help fishers. The Eat Seafood, America! campaign is drumming up interest in nationwide seafood consumption, as a way of supporting fisheries markets. Organizations like Local Catch and media coverage of seafood sales help fishers and seafood buyers connect for new, direct-to-consumer seafood sales. 

The COVID burden can also be lessened by suspending fisheries regulations that are lower priority. Take, for example, NOAA’s Fisheries Observer program. In normal years, commercial fishers are required to take an observer on board to document catch. Earlier this year, the Observers program was suspended so that fishers could bypass the expense and the transmission risk of bringing more people on their boat.

Finally, authors stress, support of any type should focus on more than just the fishers themselves. Fishers’ spouses, children, and neighbors are impacted by COVID-19, too. Broad-reaching support— things like funding for hospitals, for healthcare, for education, for therapy— is important in making sure not just fishers, but also fishing communities, weather this storm.


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