The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as our study was being conducted, creating an undeniable condition that we felt important to address. Below we present study participants’ perspectives related to COVID-19 effects on California’s commercial and commercial passenger fishing vessel (CPFV/charter boat) fishing communities.
Like many, focus group participants experienced disruptions to life and business due to COVID-19. They recounted negative effects from the pandemic, including interruptions to markets, health-related risks, and challenges accessing waterfronts. As needed, commercial and CPFV fishing community members developed adaptation strategies to cope.
Figure 1. Pie chart showing commercial fishing focus group participants’ perceived disruption of COVID-19 to their port’s fishing operations (n=63).
Overview of commercial fishing perceptions of COVID-19 impacts
Commercial fishing focus groups participants discussed experiencing negative impacts and disruptions in their fishing activities due to COVID-19. Well over half of participants reported a high amount of disruption, a third reported some disruption, and less than 10% reported very little disruption to their everyday business activities.
COVID-19 disruptions to traditional commercial fishing operations and markets
Commercial fishing focus group participants reported that COVID-19 affected overseas and export markets, restaurant sales, and the trucking operations of their buyers. These disruptions resulted in very low prices and in some cases, the inability to sell catch, leading some fishermen to decide not to fish due to low prices and health concerns. Other fishermen decided to fish more, in order to produce higher catches and offset lower prices. Some participants reported that markets for certain fisheries, such as salmon, in certain locations were either not affected or even improved, particularly for fisheries that allowed for direct sales.
Health-related challenges for commercial fishermen from COVID-19
Health concerns and crew challenges were reported in various ports by focus group participants across the state. Some fishing operations decided to reduce crew sizes due to health concerns, while other operations struggled to maintain crew during the pandemic, which some participants suggested was due to the availability of pandemic-related unemployment benefits.
As a trailer boat commercial fisherman, during COVID, in the beginning, I had to threaten these lawsuits to get access to the boat ramps […] There was two months where I wasn’t able to fish because the boat ramps were closed.
This past year, I’ve done things that I never envisioned that I would have to do just to survive the COVID thing. We fished to when the truck was available, not to when the weather was good. And we had buyers that wanted, on one particular day of the week, they only wanted small fish […] So we were throwing fish over the side that normally would have been marketable. […] We managed to make a year out of it, but it wasn’t easy.
In my particular case, what I found last summer with COVID around was that the demand for the salmon increased, not decreased. […] We have more people here now than we’ve ever had before; they’re trying to get out of the Bay Area. […] And so I […] found that the markets were pretty good for the way that I sell the fish. I usually catch less and try to sell them to individuals as much as possible to get more per fish.
When rock cod season opened up, people weren’t going into town or going to grocery stores. They wanted to stay home. All I had to do was text a few people, and we would have our orders before we even went fishing.
It’s also been hard to negotiate the whole thing with your deckhand on the boat, without having the [ability] for social distancing all the time and the impact of that with your family [and being able to] work that all out, it’s just made it a lot more difficult.
Commercial fishing adaptation strategies in the face of COVID-19
Study participants reported that commercial fishermen used creative adaptation strategies to keep their businesses afloat during COVID-19. Some commercial fishermen grew their existing direct marketing businesses during the pandemic, while others developed new strategies, including using social media or websites to sell their catch directly to consumers and/or restaurants. In general, participants expressed an interest in maintaining or expanding their direct marketing efforts, since many of these ventures were lucrative during the pandemic.
We did an online store and added a bunch of product that we were getting from other fishermen, which was around the same time that the supermarkets were emptying out and people didn’t want to go shopping. So the option to pull up and have a box full of seafood handed to them was super appealing.
I’m new to the whole off the dock sales thing…other fishermen in this port have many years worth of experience more than I do…I think that maybe the demand has always been there for getting your seafood off the dock and directly from the source [and] maybe COVID-19 has helped push that demand a little bit further and increased that demand maybe slightly.
The reason we pivoted to e-commerce and more direct-to-consumer sales [was] because restaurants shut down due to COVID. […] I dreamt of doing an online sale thing prior to that, but I feel like I got kicked in the butt a little bit and didn’t have much of a choice because we had no other outlet for our catch. [. . .] I hope things get better for fishermen and there’s more outlets and the markets strengthen a bit here. I think the consumers definitely want it, it’s just logistics of getting it to them.
I have an Instagram page, and I don’t like people or social media. Now I’m [using social media] to sell direct-to-consumer. We adapted – we’re fishermen, you have to or you go out of business.
Waterfront access challenges from COVID-19
In several parts of the state, participants reported that both commercial fishermen and CPFV owner/operators experienced challenges accessing the waterfront and their businesses due to COVID-19 restrictions, including beach and waterfront closures in the first three months of the pandemic.
CPFV impacts and adaptations from COVID-19
CPFV focus group participants reported that COVID-19 was disruptive and changed the way CPFV businesses operate. 85% of focus group participants reported high or very high disruption and only 5% reported low levels of disruption.
Participants across focus groups recounted several-month long CPFV business closures early on in the pandemic as a result of state- and county-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, which led to a loss of revenue for CPFV businesses. When operations resumed at reduced capacity to allow space for physical distancing, revenues continued to be negatively affected. CPFV owners/operators also invested in personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks, and implemented safety measures in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on their boats, including regular sanitizing between and during fishing trips.
Figure 2. Pie chart showing CPFV focus group participants’ perceived disruption of COVID-19 to their region’s fishing operations (n=20)..
We raised the price a little bit. Ran lighter loads. It didn’t compensate for the full normal year deal. And then for the family groups, we did a regular deal. But people were scared at the beginning. A lot of people were scared. We didn’t get going until middle of June almost, usually we start in April, so there’s three months right there. We all felt it.