COVID-19 takes half-billion dollar bite from Alaska commercial fisheries revenue

Long-line caught halibut await unloading in Petersburg. (Angela Denning/KFSK)

A federal agency has put dollar amounts on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for commercial and charter fishing industries nationwide.

On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report on the virus’ economic impact on seafood and charter fishing through August 2020. NOAA Fisheries’ Deputy Assistant Administrator for Operations Paul Doremus called the report a snapshot of an industry in transition.

“We’re trying to account in great detail with the data and information in this report on the bearing of COVID-19 on the sector as a whole, and provide this in a way that can help businesses and communities understand what has happened, where the losses have been concentrated, and to inform long-term recovery and resilient strategies,” Doremus said in a conference call with reporters.

Nationwide, the commercial fishing industry started off 2020 with increases in revenue from seafood sales. But as the pandemic hit in March, that income dropped off 19% compared to the most recent five-year average. Those declines swelled to 45% by July.

Port closures and shipping restrictions meant a big drop in seafood exports. Large gains in grocery store sales weren’t enough to offset losses from closed restaurants around the U.S., according to the report. More than 70% of seafood is eaten in restaurants, especially high-value fresh seafood, which meant a big market loss.

NOAA Fisheries economist, and one of the report’s authors, Rita Curtis said frozen and shelf-stable product fared better, but the revenue losses were seen across many types of seafood.

“You know with these kind of declines, successively getting worse and worse, going from March, April, May, June, July. It was really quite surprising how badly the situation was deteriorating in the spring,” Curtis said.

Alaska’s cumulative seafood revenue in the first half of 2020 lagged 35% behind average over the last five years. (NOAA)

With a drop in harvests for many species and lower prices paid for that seafood, the commercial industry in Alaska saw early 2020 revenue drop nearly half a billion dollars compared to the year before — down $436 million dollars, from $1.48 billion in 2019 to $1.04 billion in 2020. That’s a loss of 35% from the recent five-year average. The biggest drops were in fisheries for herring, salmon, halibut, Pacific cod and flatfish.

There were a couple of commercial catches that bucked the trend. The report highlights indications of strong demand for crab species from Alaska compared to the year before and the recent average. Some of the most lucrative crab seasons were wrapped up before the full impact of the pandemic hit. Harvests and revenue from Alaska rockfish also beat the recent averages.

Landing revenue by Alaska seafood species for the first half of 2020. (NOAA)

The report also highlighted big revenue declines for the charter sportfishing fleet. A poll of businesses in May showed a 50% drop in bookings from the year before, in the first part of that season.

But Deputy Assistant Administrator Doremus sounded a more positive note looking toward 2021 because of the rollout of vaccines and changes to how the industry does business.

“I don’t think anybody expects a reversion to life before COVID,” Doremus said. “Significant adjustments are being made in industry, in product form, product diversification, changing distribution channels, a variety of types of adjustments to how supply chains are being managed. All much-needed changes, all changes that will help strengthen industry over time.”

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