Pandemic pushes fishing activists to call for more government support

A boat at low tide in the Dillingham harbor. (Sage Smiley/KDLG)

Before this year’s salmon season, federal disaster funding was mostly unavailable to small-boat fishing businesses. Then, Congress amended the Paycheck Protection Program at the beginning of July so that fishermen could apply. A little later, it extended the program’s application deadline until August 8.

That was a big relief for many fishermen in Alaska.

“My family and I are salmon fishermen,” said Jamie O’Connor, a Bristol Bay set-netter who fishes in Ekuk and serves as the Working Waterfronts director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “It was really difficult for us to quantify our impacts before our season had happened, so we were really happy to see that there had been an extension and some alterations to the program to allow us to participate.”

At the peak of this year’s sockeye run, O’Connor’s processor put the fleet on limits — the company, and many others in Bristol Bay, told fishermen not to fish due to freezer and capacity issues.

“We missed probably half to a third of our season in those three days,” O’Connor said. “It was a hard thing to sit through, especially with all of the effort that went into preparing for this season. To have done more on the front end to make sure we could do this safely and then just sit out the run was crushing.”

O’Connor says she knows that not everyone in Bristol Bay ran into those issues. Still, she says, the way the season played out means people in the fishing industry are going to need help to make it through the winter.

Bristol Bay is not the only place having a rough season. Across the state and the country, people in the fishing industry are feeling the effects of the pandemic and a global recession.

Linda Behnken is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. She also fishes for halibut, black cod and salmon.

“We’ve seen drops in prices of 40-to-60% in seafood species harvested in Alaska,” Behnken said. “I know in some parts of the country, that’s even higher — where markets have completely disappeared and boats aren’t fishing and prices have dropped by 95%.”

Processors in Bristol Bay started posting a base price of $0.70, just over half of last year’s base price of $1.35.

Behnken and O’Connor are both part of the Fishing Communities Coalition, an advocacy and support organization for small-boat fishermen. In the short term, they see the Paycheck Protection Program as vital to protecting fishing economies in Alaska.

But fishing businesses will also need longer-term, broader support to remain viable. That’s where they run into a decades-old issue.

“One of the biggest challenges that we face is how unconventional fishing businesses are, in relation to the majority of the American workforce,” said Marissa Wilson, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “While the commercial harvest of wild fish has defined coastal economies for decades, fisheries still aren’t on par with the land-based harvesters in terms of federal support.”

Wilson says Department of Agriculture programs, which are unavailable to fishermen, received $9.5 billion dollars in direct aid for farmers and ranchers and an additional $14 billion dollar replenishment for the Commodity Credit Corporation, which helps to balance distribution and prices of agricultural products.

U.S. fisheries received only $300 million dollars.

“Most fishing vessel operators reinvest their earnings back into their businesses,” Wilson said. “Which is great, it stimulates the local economy in a really dynamic way, but it has also hindered valuations of appropriate relief for those businesses because they show very little profit.”

That’s why the Fishing Communities Coalition is calling on Congress and the current administration to appropriate an additional $5.4 billion dollars in aid to support the fishing industry nationwide, an amount comparable to the last reported nationwide dockside value of fisheries.

That money wouldn’t just be for COVID-19 relief. It would bolster and establish other economic viability programs that are longer-term, including grandfathering the fishing industry into federal programs that already exist: the Department of Agriculture procurement and producer programs, the Department of Transportation infrastructure and capacity programs and the Small Business Administration disaster loans and support programs, as well as training for future generations in the fishing industry.

People in the fishing industry hope that 2020 is an anomaly, though one that is hitting the small-boat fishing industry especially hard because of its reliance on restaurant demand.

“It’s feeling a little overwhelming, but we will adapt as we always have, and I always come back to the food aspect of this,” said O’Connor.

“I’m going to hang up with you and go put away another 30 fish of home-pack because I think we’re going to need it this year, and that’s really when it all boils down why I come here. Because I’m feeding my family, I’m feeding the world and our nation and that matters. And maintaining that and our connection to each other and the ocean is of paramount importance.”