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‘A profound struggle’: South Coast fishing industry fights to hold on

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NEW BEDFORD, MASS. (WPRI) – When Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all restaurants to close dine-in services on March 17 to help fight coronavirus, a shudder ran through the fishing industry along the South Coast of Massachusetts.

Roughly two-thirds of freshly caught seafood in Massachusetts is purchased by restaurants, and while takeout and delivery services have continued during the public health crisis, consumers are more apt to eat scallops, lobsters and many other edible sea species at dine-in eateries.

As a result, demand fell sharply in the fishing industry, especially for more lucrative seafood.  

“When all the restaurants close up, there isn’t a market for that fresh fish,” New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said. “Prices plummet to a point where it isn’t profitable for many boatowners to send their boats out for trips, so that puts fishermen out of work.”

For Southeastern Massachusetts, the health of the fishing industry is a key concern — and it will likely be one of the topics during WPRI 12’s live 7 p.m. U.S. Senate primary debate between Democratic incumbent Ed Markey and challenger Joe Kennedy III, their only debate for this region.

The Port of New Bedford boasts about 70% of fish landings in Massachusetts and roughly 10% of landings across the country, making it the No. 1 port in terms of value for the 18th consecutive year in 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

The industry also supports the broader South Coast economy: commercial fishing at the port directly employed upward of 6,800 people before COVID-19, according to its website. The quasi-public operation estimates it indirectly supports another 40,000 jobs and generates $11.1 billion in economic activity.

Like most industries, however, the seafood sector has seen the public health crisis cause layoffs across the supply chain, from fishermen and boat owners to processing plants and suppliers, who transport the food to restaurants and markets near and far.

“It’s a profound struggle,” said Keith Decker, CEO of Blue Harvest Fisheries in New Bedford. “Anyone who was specifically targeting food services would have seen between a 70% to 90% decline in sales.”

(Story continues below.)

A public health and economic crisis

Decker said he was able to minimize layoffs at his company, but the public health crisis has prevented him from hiring roughly 100 seasonal workers, who would typically help out during the busier fishing season.

But not everyone has been so lucky.

The slump in sales has translated into widespread layoffs across the industry, contributing to the Massachusetts unemployment rate spiking to 15.1% in April compared to 2.9% in March.

The joblessness is especially pronounced in Southeastern Massachusetts, where every Bristol County city and town but one — Easton — reported higher unemployment than the statewide rate in April.

New Bedford led the way with a 24.4% unemployment rate in April, up from 5.3% in March, pushing the city back into an economic slump that it successfully exited after the Great Recession.

Fall River, Taunton, Acushnet and Somerset, likewise, all reported unemployment rates above 20%.

COVID-19 also poses a unique challenge for fishermen, who sometimes go out to sea for more than a week at a time, living and working in close quarters.

“People think of fishermen as being out on the deck with the wide expansion of the ocean, but they also work in closely confined areas,” said Mitchell, who recently partnered with Southcoast Health to provide mobile testing for commercial fishermen.

Onshore, seafood processing plants – like other food manufacturers across the country – have grappled with preventing spread of the disease. New Bedford’s Board of Health in April ordered Decker’s business to close down for three days after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Following a deep cleaning of its facilities, the business reopened under new safety protocols, including rigorous cleaning, staggered work schedules and taking employees temperatures at the beginning and end of shifts.

Since then, Decker said the company has had about one new case per week, but no one has contracted the disease at the plant. And the city expanded the same safety requirements to other businesses across New Bedford, which Mitchell said is helping stem further spread.  

“Early on, there wasn’t enough knowledge and learning by the Department of Health, and by city and state,” Decker said. “They were learning on the fly and the CDC kept putting out revised information. Things are significantly better now in terms of having all the protocol in place.”

In an attempt to make up some of the revenue lost through the wholesale market, fishing businesses have tried to boost revenue by selling online, and making a direct appeal to consumers to buy directly from fishermen.

Decker encourages people to buy from local fisherman, saying it helps both them and the broader community. But he acknowledged that the direct sales come nowhere close to making up for the loss from restaurants.

“It’s a nice story, but it’s not going to replace the impact of losing the food-service industry,” he said.

‘We’re holding our breaths’

In recognition of how badly COVID-19 could affect the fishing industry, Congress earmarked about $300 million of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act specifically to support fisheries across the country.

The U.S. Department of Commerce decided to allocate about $28 million of that funding to Massachusetts, which is money U.S. Sen. Edward Markey is quick to point out he helped secure.

The effort, he explained, required the support of his Massachusetts colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow Democrat, along with Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans.

“We were successful in getting that money in there and were able to do that on a bipartisan basis with two very conservative Republicans,” Markey said during a live-streamed discussion with Mayor Mitchell about the fishing industry on May 28.

The industry initially heralded the federal funding when it was finally allocated on May 7, as the money represented an opportunity for business owners to pay for loans, rent and other fixed costs at a time when sales had largely disappeared.

Fast forward nearly a month, however, and NOAA Fisheries still hasn’t distributed any funds.

“Not one dollar has been distributed yet,” Decker said.

Decker said he isn’t applying for the funding because there’s only a limited amount, and he sees other businesses with greater needs. At the same time, others are calling the money insufficient, including U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, a Democrat, who is challenging Markey for his Senate seat.

“Massachusetts will receive up to $670 less per job than other states despite the outsized role the commonwealth plays in the overall fishing industry and economy,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The $28 million “will not address the economic pain felt throughout the commonwealth,” Kennedy added, urging the federal government to reconsider how much is allocated for the state.

“Massachusetts fishermen are fighting to stay in business during an unprecedented health and economic crisis,” he wrote. “Please do not make them fight alone.”

The uncertainty both inside and outside the industry, along with questions about how much support might be available for those whose livelihoods depend on the sea, make it difficult to predict what the industry might look like in the coming months — especially as the disease lingers.

Outdoor dining is slated to resume Monday in Massachusetts, which could give a boost to the fishing industry, assuming consumers are confident enough to eat out, and restaurant owners find a way to make ends meet.

For Decker the opening is an encouraging sign, because even 25% to 50% in returned sales “is better than nothing,” he said. But the industry is still taking a “wait-and-see attitude,” he said, as there’s no guarantee COVID-19 doesn’t flare up again and the shutdowns return.

“We’re holding our breaths,” he added.  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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