With the continued conundrum of the covid virus since last March, the industry faced the challenges of retooling itself to get products to the end consumers. To some distributors within the seafood distribution chain that meant circumlocution of restaurants and redirecting product into retail supermarket chains.
For processors, that meant putting product that had traditionally moved into fresh markets into freezers in the hopes of selling later — and for others, like live crab buyers from China, it put a stop to moving fresh product overseas for much of the season.
In the end, one of the big winners of the year on the West Coast was dockside fish markets, which helped the fleets access new customers.
Interviews with consumers at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market in San Diego after covid hit indicated that more than half of the customers bought fish at the market for their first time.
“They were saying things like, ‘We’re worried about food sources,’” says Theresa Sinicrope Talley, a coastal specialist with California Sea Grant, in San Diego. “They were concerned about where their protein was coming from.”
Especially those who depended on restaurants.
“Now they’re being more adventurous, going out and getting the seafood themselves and cooking at home,” says Sinicrope Talley.
As it turns out Sinicrope Talley and her colleagues ramped up their production of information and training for fishermen embracing self-marketing models already in 2018 in response to increasing foreign tariffs.
As summer arrived, restaurant owners with enough real estate built outdoor decks and reconfigured table placements to accommodate mandates of social distancing. The temporary openings offered an outlet for limited supplies of fresh petrale sole, salmon, crab and albacore.
Though the petrale are usually caught and delivered in large volumes, processors fielded sporadic requests for loads of around 5,000 pounds throughout summer.
Albacore trollers wound up selling much of their blast-bled fish into canned markets with the onslaught of the pandemic. Though canned demand was off the charts as hording shelf-stable protein ensued, ex-vessel prices fell from around $4,000 per ton to $3,200 per ton. Again, fishermen selling to markets like Tuna Harbor Dockside received premium ex-vessel prices for their products.
As 2021 unfolded, questions loomed as to whether holdover inventories will clear out, creating demand and robust ex-vessel prices for this year’s harvest. In the meantime, an increasing number of vessel owners have applied for receiving permits to satisfy protocols for selling fish directly from their vessels.
To some, the pandemic opens the door to a new regime, a new infrastructure between fishermen and end markets.
“We shouldn’t just see this as a way to get through this pandemic,” says Sinicrope Talley. “But in the longer term, what does it look like as a more resilient seafood system? There will always be a need for imports and also exports, but we can strengthen what we have.”
Ex-vessel price negotiations and meat-fill issues waylaid the start of the last Dungeness crab season until Dec. 31, 2019. When covid hit, the crab shacks closed and processors put millions of pounds into cold storage inventories in hopes of moving the product later. As of this February, many processors were still holding product that traditionally moves out between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.
As for the fleet, Oregon crabbers put in another banner year with landings of 20.07 million pounds and revenues of $73.06 million.
Covid put the clamps on the liquidation of squid, another high-volume fishery in which China consumes the majority of product with the remainder going to Europe. Though covid hampered the movement of product in the transportation and reprocessing sectors, ex-vessel prices remained rock solid at $1,000 during the season for the seiners.
Another species with its predominance of market interest in Japan, blackcod biomass continued to produce smaller fish in 2020. Processors have promoted increased consumption domestically in response to waning demand in Japan with limited success, and anecdotal reports support a growing optimism among fishermen selling their blackcod directly from their vessels to consumers at the docks.
For the dive fleet, targeting red urchins the battle to remove purple urchins and rejuvenate kelp beds continued. In 2020, the fleet harvested 4.94 million pounds, and the ex-vessel price climbed from an average $1.98 in 2019 and $2.35 per pound in 2020.
Spiny urchins already suffered stiff tariffs on product going to China, and the absence of live buyers, held the season’s revenues to about a third of what the divers received in years past.
Oregon shrimp trawlers put in another great year in 2020 with a harvest of 43.14 million pounds with an average ex-vessel price of 52 cents per pounds for fleet revenues of $22.58 million. But much of the product remains unsold, with millions of pounds sitting in freezers waiting for the market avenues to reopen. Covid outbreaks in processing crews shut down some plants, while others worked with skeleton crews to freeze the shrimp whole instead of cooking and shelling it first.
Though landings turned out abysmally low for the West Coast salmon trollers, they saw ex-vessel prices for their fish climb to an average of $7.22 per pound, about $2 per pound higher than in 2019 as distributors redirected product from closed restaurants into retail chains.
Prices were even better for some fishermen selling their freshly-caught king salmon directly to consumers or into street markets.