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Commercial fishing industry braces for strange season

Upcoming local, Alaskan fishing season will be seeing low prices, high uncertainty

Boats in Squalicum Harbor moored at the docks May 29. // Photo courtesy of Olivia Hobson

By Olivia Hobson

Nathan Thomas, a contracted fisherman for North Pacific Seafoods, is the owner and operator of his fishing vessel, the FV Robert S. This year, he and his four-person crew will be leaving the Bellingham marina to fish for red salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska, before moving further south to fish for pink and chum salmon later in the season. 

“[The pandemic] is gonna change the dynamics a little bit this year in terms of how fishermen move about and our ability to go near shore and to shore. We’re trying to be pretty cautious about that,” Thomas said. 

The crew is following guidelines and has taken precautions this year that wouldn’t necessarily play into a regular season, Thomas said. The state of Alaska is currently requiring all out-of-state travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, which has played a large role in many people’s fishing season plans. The crew will also be logging temperatures twice a day to check for infection, and everyone on the crew has gotten medical evacuation insurance in case anything happens. The rural, local facilities where they will be are not able to handle any large outbreaks of COVID-19, Thomas said, so it’s an important precaution. 

The upcoming fishing season in Alaska and Whatcom County will be looking very different this year, according to Pete Granger, a fisherman owner of Legoe Bay Fisheries and board member of the Working Waterfront Coalition in Whatcom County. Granger, who spent many seasons in Bristol Bay as a fisherman, processing plant worker and lobbyist, has since traded in his Alaskan summers for fishing closer to home on Lummi Island. 

The pandemic has influenced the entire fishing industry this season, affecting the people catching the fish, the people processing the fish and the people buying the fish, Granger said. At a May 7, Marine Resources Committee speaker series event, Granger explained that the pandemic is impacting the seafood markets and is threatening the health and safety of those working in the fishing industry. 

“Commercial fishing is an integral part of our constituency,” Granger said. “The whole commercial fishing and seafood sector locally, regionally and nationally is reeling from the onslaught of the global pandemic.”

The commercial fishing industry in Whatcom County has important economic revenues, according to a report prepared for the Port of Bellingham in 2013. According to the report, commercial fishing generates 1,781 direct jobs with an additional 870 indirect jobs. Local businesses received $320 million in revenue from purchases of the fishing fleet at the Bellingham Marina, and nearly $16 million in tax revenue was generated for both local and state governments. 

Whatcom County’s commercial seafood industry will see the pandemic’s impact most tangibly in the shellfish markets. Local salmon runs are predicted to be incredibly low, but the Lummi Nation has strong dungeness crab fisheries, and they ship a large proportion of their catch, still alive, to Asian markets in China, Japan and Taiwan, Granger said. The cancellation of Chinese New Year celebrations in late January had a noticeable effect on market sales this year, Granger said, and the pandemic closures in that part of the world resulted in that market essentially dropping off the map. 

Other markets include domestic restaurant orders. In the United States, 70% of seafood is eaten in restaurants, Granger said. Some of the dungeness catch is sent to Californian restaurants, and when those restaurants, in addition to restaurants all over the country, closed, fisheries saw a disappearance of restaurant market demand. 

This shift in consumer demand has resulted in additional uncertainty in an already uncertain industry. The market price of fish, or what processing companies are willing to pay fishermen for their catch, has already seen steep declines this season, Granger said. Speculation about the prices will continue throughout the season, but a lack of demand will contribute to a much lower price, Granger said. 

Kendall Whitney, marketing manager of the Seafood Producers Cooperative, said that while the market price may be uncertain, they are still doing their best to get the fishermen a fair price for their work. The company, headquartered in Bellingham with processing plants in Sitka, Alaska, is a fishermen-owned co-op, which ensures strong partnerships between the people out on the water and the processors. 

“Because we’re fisherman owned, we work to get the fishermen the best price we can and give them the best money for their hard work,” Whitney said. 

The processing plant itself has had to implement safety measures as well. Masks are required, visitors are banned and the plant has set up contingency plans with other processing companies in case infections appear. “The fishermen have to unload somewhere,” Whitney said, and other plants have offered to help if the current situation changes. 

“The first thing is to keep everybody safe,” Whitney said. “If anything happens, we don’t want to limit what we can do.”

For the co-op, international and restaurant markets all but disappeared at the start of the pandemic. However, there has been an increase in direct-to-consumer sales, with the processing plant selling directly to individuals looking for seafood to purchase for their home kitchens, Whitney said. That market has seen a 300% increase since March, Whitney said.

That uptick in sales has shown itself at the Pop Up Fish Shop in Bellingham, a program out of Trident Seafoods, the largest seafood processor in North America headquartered in Seattle. The company has a processing plant in Bellingham, and the fish shop, which provides Alaskan seafood to community members in Bellingham and Ballard, has seen a large success with orders. 

The pop up shop, a bright red truck with refrigeration capabilities, sits in a parking lot on Coho Way at the marina. The handful of workers wear matching red t-shirts and cloth face masks. Lo Reichert, the mobile marketing manager for Trident and head of the pop up shop, greets people with a friendly smile hidden by a blue cloth face mask.

Reichert has been pleased with the success the program has seen in Bellingham. They redesigned the service for the pandemic, and now offer contact-free seafood pickup for the community. The program has seen large quantities of orders, and for Reichert, has provided connection during a time of hardship. The pandemic has shown how important adaptability and community is, Reichert said, and he hopes to incorporate food security charity partnerships with the program in the future.

“It feels like it’s a valuable service and it’s really neat to be able to connect with people,” Reichert said. “I’m hoping that it spurs other companies to see what’s going on and to model this. It could be an encouragement for others to get creative. We all need to work together and learn from each other.”

When asked about what he’s heard about market prices for his catch, Thomas said that it’s all speculative. 

“All rumors. Everybody is hoping for high prices, but we’ll see how it all plays out.” 

That optimism is something hundreds of fishermen are bringing with them from Whatcom County to Alaska this summer. Granger estimated that at least 1,500 people travel north for the fishing season, and despite the irregular season, people are still making that journey this year. 

Two second-year Western students, Margeaux Bailey and Madeline Parrish, are Alaska natives and have spent multiple seasons fishing in Alaska over the summer. This season will look different, however, and Parrish, whose captain decided to sit out the season due to his age and higher risk for infection, decided that the market price uncertainty was too hard to ignore.

“I could have gotten on another boat, but I was so unsure about the market price of fish, I didn’t know if the economy was going to support the fishing industry this year,” Parrish said. “So it was just a personal choice for me to get a nine-to-five instead.”  

Despite her choice, she’ll miss the lifestyle the work offers, Parrish said. 

“Being totally on the water, it’s like microdosing your cosmic insignificance,” Parrish said. And if the season brings good market prices, she’ll be “really disappointed” to have missed out on the season. 

Bailey, however, will be returning to the water as part of a three-woman crew she’s worked with in the past. Her dad moved to Alaska from Massachusetts and started fishing at a young age, and Bailey has grown up fishing in the summer season. For her, it’s a family affair, and this season was already a guarantee. 

“There was no doubt in my mind that I would be fishing this year,” Bailey said. For her, the industry is risky even during a regular season. “When you go into fishing it’s a gamble every time.”

Bailey is worried about the market prices, but is hoping for the best. This season will also be even more isolated than usual, she said. During a regular year, crews will raft up to each other’s boats and hangout during their down time. Now, even that small amount of socialization will not be happening. 

Despite the uncertainty and the different experience the season will hold, it’s important to keep the industry alive, Bailey said. The commercial fishing industry provides jobs and revenue for local economies, and for both Whatcom County and Alaskan fishing communities, this pandemic may change the season, but it will not stop it. 

“We’re gonna try our darndest to make this happen, because it’s good for the economy and it’s good for the people,” Bailey said. 


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