Study: Pandemic proved very costly to fisheries

Health and safety protocols had deep impact on harvester, processor sectors

Alaska’s commercial fisheries took a direct hit from the novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020, in harvesting, processing and overall value, a new report from NOAA Fisheries confirms.

Challenges presented to harvesters and processors, and all others engaged in the fisheries became obvious early in the spring of the year, spelled out in the precautions they would all need to take to assure the health and safety of themselves, their employees and everyone and every community they were doing business with.

The sudden need to consider how to operate safety, the process of finding and purchasing protective gear, testing and quarantining employees cost overall in the millions of dollars.

The NOAA report notes that the seafood industry has been fairly successful in Alaska at limiting virus spread, but they had to deal with a substantial reduction in transportation options in many western Alaska and Aleutian Islands communities. They had limited ability to switch crews throughout the fishing seasons, although the Alaska Region office of NOAA Fisheries was instrumental in devising solutions with industry to allow the continuation of fishing operations and limited the need for fisheries closures, which would otherwise have led to vessel downtime and higher crew turnover, increasing the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

While Alaska remains the region of the United States with the largest export values, Alaska fisheries suffered a decline in value compared to 2019, along with a decline in exports, the report said. Exports to China from January through June decreased from the $515 million baseline average to $386 million in 2020, a 25 percent decline, but because the U.S. dollar weakened from January through August 2020 against the Euro and Yen, that should have helped U.S. and Alaska Seafood export competitiveness, the report said.

Meanwhile limited set on restaurant occupancy and at times closures, along with social distancing protocols and other safety measures contributed to major losses in sales to restaurants, the report said.

Total landings from January through August 2020 were 15 percent below 2019 levels, a reduction of 695 million pounds from 4.74 billion pounds to 4.03 billion pounds. These trends, the report noted, were largely due to a 71 percent and 45 percent decline in harvest volume for herring and salmon respectively, and a decline of 18 percent for halibut, 16 percent for Pacific cod at-sea and 13 percent for Pacific cod shoreside compare to 2019 levels.

Landings in 2020 fell by 17 percent or 815 million pounds compared to the 2015-2019 baseline period as a result of a 74 percent, 44 percent, 36 percent, 39 percent and 17 percent reduction in herring, salmon, Pacific cod at sea, Pacific cod shoreside and halibut landings respectively. In contrast crab, flatfish and rockfish harvests were up 3 percent, four percent and 11 percent respectively compared with the 2015-2019 period.

The largest components of the decrease in value through August included a 67 percent decline in the harvest value for herring, a 61 percent reduction in salmon, 37 percent reduction in halibut revenues, a 30 percent decline in shoreside Pacific cod and a 17 percent decrease in the value of flatfish compared with 2019 levels.

Compared with the 2015-2019 baseline, salmon revenues were estimated to have declined by 58 percent, herring revenues by 55 percent, halibut by 48 percent, Pacific cod at sea by 45 percent, shoreside Pacific cod by 41 percent, and sablefish by 26 percent. Alaska Pollock at sea and shoreside fell by 16 percent and 15 percent respectively and flatfish declined by 4 percent.

As the virus began to spread through Alaska there were fears of closure of portions of salmon fisheries, but prosecution of those fisheries continued with limited processing capacity, resulting in fewer value-added products and ultimately substantially lower ex-vessel prices, the report said.