Community-supported fisheries rush to pivot models as coronavirus cuts off restaurant clients

With restaurants across the country shuttered by covid-19 outbreak restrictions, the seafood supply chain in most regions has ground to halt. Fishermen are stuck with their catch left unsold and their boats tied up.

Legislators in Massachusetts and Alaska have called for urgent support for the fishing industry, but fishermen are stuck fending for themselves in the meantime. For fishermen and businesses focused on direct marketing and selling their catch locally, this means quickly pivoting their businesses to adjust to consumer needs during the pandemic.

Tele Aadsen of Nerka Sea Frozen Salmon in Bellingham, Wash., has been hustling nonstop to earn what she can since dining rooms were closed on March 15 and restaurants were limited to takeout and delivery options. Practically overnight, 90 percent of the company’s clients were lost.

The Nerka and two partner boats, whose fish is sold by Nerka Sea Frozen Salmon.

“We’re adapting on the fly and without a road map,” Aadsen, who runs the business with her husband, Joel Brady-Power, told National Fisherman. 

Nerka Sea Frozen Salmon was founded by Brady-Power’s father in 1998, when he would truck his silver salmon around to local restaurants to convince them to serve his catch. Those same businesses were still taking fish from Nerka Sea up until mid-March. Now Aadsen has been forced to quickly shift toward selling to individuals to keep income flowing. However, selling whole, headed and gutted fish to single consumers is a bit different than selling portioned fillets.

“We’ve been lucky that folks have been so supportive. Whole fish can be intimidating or too much for consumers, but people are saying, ‘Oh no, it’s OK. We’ll take a fish and figure it out. We can look up a YouTube tutorial,” said Aadsen.

Similarly, the owners of Get Hooked in Santa Barbara, Calif., have jumped into local home delivery as restaurants close, supermarkets begin to look like hotbeds for germs and folks look to avoid public pick-up points. Chief Operations Manager Victoria Voss said the company has seen a major uptick in subscriptions and special order requests.

“A lot of folks are subscribing and taking advantage of other delivery options to avoid going out in public,” said Voss, while others are stocking up with multiple orders, presumably to stay isolated for some period of time. 

“People don’t want to be around each other right now, but they’ve got to eat,” said fishermen Craig Jacobs of OC Wild Seafood in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Home delivery keeps the seafood flowing and fishermen on the water, but Jacobs admits personal delivery of spiny lobster in this time is a tough situation.

“I’m worried about just being around other people,” said Jacobs. ” I’m not that old — I’m 53 but still. On my last delivery run the other day, some people still want to come out and shake your hand. It’s great that I’m able to keep fishing and support my family, but it’s tough to both be fishing and doing deliveries.” 

Kim Selkoe, a Get Hooked Seafood co-founder, has run into folks who have requested no-contact deliveries because they have high-risk conditions that would make getting covid-19 potentially deadly. Jacobs has stopped exchanging cash, opting instead for digital payments and communicating through text to arrange deliveries.

The seafood supply chain

For leaders in seafood direct marketing and community-supported fisheries, the breakdown of the U.S. seafood supply chain under the stress of the covid-19 restrictions is an example of a larger problem with our food system, not a one-time, emergency-fueled issue.

Joshua Stoll, a professor of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Maine and coordinator of the Local Catch Network, has been organizing conversations between struggling fishing businesses online as Maine’s lobster industry struggles to adapt to fishing during a pandemic.

“This covid-19 outbreak and the conversations about it really speaks to the vulnerability of our food system,” said Stoll, comparing the sudden halt in seafood sales to the immediate post-9/11 market. “Almost overnight food systems came crashing down and have left fishermen, their families and coastal communities economically vulnerable. Every time an event like this occurs, we’re all in the same boat since we have to work within a global seafood system that doesn’t really support local communities.”

The Local Catch Network has been supporting online conversation between fishermen who are sharing their plans to adjust their businesses while also sharing their successes and mistakes. The organization is aiming to formalize and record those conversations to help even more fishermen. Local Catch is hosting an online open forum on March 31 for fishermen, community organizers, and other interested parties to share updates, lessons learned, and critical information on fishermen’s markets during the covid-19 pandemic. You can register to participate in the event online.

“This time of hardship has been an important reminder that the people providing our food as well as local and regional supply chains are essential, said Brett Tolley, a community organizer with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “We know it’s time to step up even more and that’s why amidst this crisis the Network is doing everything it can to ensure that seafood eaters and community-based seafood businesses have the information and support they need to feed people well.”

While fishermen are certainly known to stick to their guns when they feel strongly about an issue, struggles like these are a good reminder that the industry is in this difficult situation and stakeholders have a lot to offer each other.

“We are seeing a philosophical and altruistic unification of the fleet right now where levels of cooperation and camaraderie are higher than they’ve been in years, while at the same time everyone is practicing safe distancing protocols,” said Dock to Dish cofounder Sean Barrett. “But there is a powerful underlying bond that exists at all times in fishing communities. That’s what has enabled this industry to survive hardship after hardship after hardship over many decades. At times like these, you can see it and feel it more than ever as everyone prepares for more hardship to come. It lets each other know that there may be many different boats but we’re all part of the same fleet.”

“I’m confident that we’ll figure this out,” said Stoll, “but it’s going to take time and during that time people are going to suffer from it.”

About the author

Samuel Hill

Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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