Image: Tom Santaguida
Not unlike its effect on humans, the pandemic’s impact on the seafood industry has been variable, erratic, often devastating. The first symptoms appeared long before Covid-19 gained a stronghold on U.S. shores, as China went into its first lockdown and a critical export market disappeared overnight—seafood processors and dealers in Maine saw international demand for lobsters temporarily vanish. Then as social distancing rules kicked in here, another major organ of the U.S. supply chain—restaurants, where most seafood purchases are made—fell limp. Then Covid outbreaks at processing plants caused the system to further buckle, leaving many fishermen with nowhere to sell their catch. Prices for many species plummeted. Some fishers gave up for the season, leaving boats tied up at the docks.
“It wasn’t worth it,” recalled Brian Pearce, a commercial fisherman based in Portland, Maine, who catches pollock, hake, and cod, and has barely fished since the pandemic started. “The price was to the point where you’re not going to make enough money.”
To many in the food industry, the pandemic’s impact has exposed the fundamental vulnerabilities of a system that has long favored efficiency over resilience. Like supply chains that draw products from many sources but are ultimately contingent on single outlets (e.g., export markets or restaurants). Or the fact that the majority of U.S.-caught seafood is exported to other countries, but—paradoxically—most seafood Americans eat is imported.
But the sledgehammer of 2020 also demonstrates what can make food systems more resilient to crises. Remarkably, consumers are experiencing a newfound appetite for locally caught, sustainable seafood. And accordingly, a slice of the U.S. fishing industry has fattened slightly this year: small, locally operated fisheries which have built their own supply chains to serve consumers, often delivering directly to their door. No strangers to challenges or disaster, many individual fishermen have also pivoted towards selling directly to the public—with mixed success. Yet what these lessons mean for the future of the industry—and if they’re enough to create resilient fisheries that can weather future storms—remains an open question.
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