Up to 40 percent of fishermen from Maine to North Carolina suspended their operations in spring 2020 as the covid-19 pandemic collapsed the seafood market, according to new findings from a Rutgers University study.

“A lot of what we found was that in the early months of the pandemic a lot of fishermen were not fishing, or waiting it out,” said Sarah Lindley Smith, a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers, a longtime center of research into the social and community effects of changing fisheries.

An online survey in spring 2020 brought responses from 258 Northeast fishermen and the results are published in the science journal PLOS One. Covering the critical early pandemic weeks of March to June 2020, the researchers also looked at landings reports and found that catches for some species like squid and scallops declined compared with the same time period of previous years.

But some other landings, including black sea bass and haddock, were on par or even higher than earlier years. Alongside their survey results, the researchers say that suggests some fishermen kept fishing hard even as they earned less.

“Groundfishermen were more likely to continue fishing” than those in other fisheries, said Smith. Even as the dominant restaurant market – accounting for 70 percent of U.S. seafood sales – vanished in those early months, local retail demand especially in New England helped keep crews working to find cod and haddock.

Scrambling to find other customers helped, with fishermen going to farmers’ markets and convincing state regulators to allow direct sale to consumers at dockside, said Smith. A lot of it was just determination to keep grinding through, paying bills and employing crew, maintaining boats and fishing quota until markets return, the study found.

A big part of the survey responses in Maine came from lobster fishermen, who were doubly slammed by trade war turmoil.

“Tariffs from China were already affecting them,” followed by Canada producers channeling their lobsters into the U.S. market, said Smith. The Rutgers survey in spring was early in the lobster season to gauge the full impact, but some lobstermen responding to the survey said they were already working on direct marketing to consumers.

By September some Maine lobstermen and dealers said the market had appeared to stabilize. But with a new covid-19 surge building this winter, prospects for a market rebound and fishermen making enough money appear far off.

“I wonder what the next couple of years will bring,” said Smith. “If the prices remain low, some will not be able to continue.”

“While we found that many fishermen kept fishing in the short-term, it will be necessary to study the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on the industry to understand whether this trend will continue,” Smith said in a summary of the research published by Rutgers. It notes that “additional research is ongoing to assess the repercussions of covid-19 on fishing households, including impacts on well-being and mental health.”

“The pandemic is just the latest threat for a sector coping with climatic pressures, overfishing, the legacies of oil spills and extreme events, and fishery management policies,” said co-author Victoria Ramenzoni, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology. “It is important to isolate these responses to identify the true cost of adaptation.”

The report’s Rutgers co-authors include doctoral student Abigail Golden; Douglas R. Zemeckis of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County; and former Professor Olaf P. Jensen, who is now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The survey is part of a NOAA-funded project, co-led by Ramenzoni and Jensen, to study the adaptation strategies of Northeast fishermen to climate change.

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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