CARTERET COUNTY — Local commercial fishermen and seafood businesses are persevering through the novel coronavirus outbreak, but restrictions and safety measures are starting to take their toll.
N.C. Fisheries Association President and commercial fisherman Glenn Skinner said Wednesday retail markets are still doing business with fishermen and seafood dealers; however, he said these markets are “a small percentage” of the normal markets for locally harvested seafood, so retail markets alone are “not enough to keep fishermen on the water.”
“I don’t have an estimate of the economic impacts in terms of dollars and cents,” Mr. Skinner said, “but I can tell you that 80 percent of domestic seafood goes through food service businesses, primarily restaurants. With the entire country shutting down restaurants, there is very little market for most of what N.C. fishermen produce.”
Mr. Skinner said there is seafood available for harvest and “literally tons of product” that’s been frozen.
“We only need buyers to put fishermen back to work,” he said. “I can’t even begin to guess what the long-term economic impacts will be, as no one knows how long this crisis will last.”
Gov. Roy Cooper put a stay-at-home order in effect last week. Mr. Skinner said the order hasn’t significantly affected fishermen since they’re considered “essential for food production.”
“But with very limited markets, many are forced to say home regardless,” he said. “While the federal stimulus bill should help fishermen, it may be several weeks before they receive any relief, because the state had to update their system to accept applications from independent contractors and self-employed individuals.”
Down East, Hooper Family Seafood has been continuing to do business. However, owner and N.C. Catch President Mark Hooper said Thursday how well a given seafood company is doing depends on the type of seafood it provides.
“The hard crab market is very depressed,” Mr. Hooper said. “I’m soft crabbing and we’re developing our markets to move product. Time will tell how the season works out. April is a big month for us.”
Mr. Hooper said they traditionally send their product to New York City to be sold in its seafood markets, an option they don’t have due to existing safety measures to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. He said the fisheries association, along with N.C. Catch and N.C. Sea Grant, have compiled a list of markets that are open in the state.
“Some dealers are buying fish,” Mr. Hooper said, “but the volume is not what it normally would be.”
One market that’s remained viable for Mr. Hooper has been the upstate market. Mr. Hooper said there’s been a demand for clams upstate, and he’s also been taking part in the Walking Fish community-supported fishery.
“We’re having a spring season with subscribers in Raleigh and Durham,” Mr. Hooper said. “The product is delivered to the area and folks pick up seafood shares. It’s in the open and fairly easy to abide by social distancing standards. We worked with the health department up there to ensure we could deliver.”
Mr. Hooper said he’s sure commercial fishermen will suffer economically from the outbreak.
“The best we can do is try to find a way to keep working,” he said. “It’s interesting, once I’m in the boat and working, I fish alone, everything is very simple. When I get back to shore, then it gets complicated as to how to move the product.”
One group that has been hit hard by the outbreak is the charterboat/headboat industry. The boats take recreational fishermen out to fish, but state and local governments have been actively discouraging vacationers and prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people.
Capt. Stacy Fishing Center owner Sonny Davis said Friday while he and his employees are “holding up” under the outbreak and various safety measures, their business hasn’t been doing well.
“We’ve been closed for two weeks,” Mr. Davis said. “Our business, the head/charterboat business, is completely dead. The commercial fishermen are going out a bit…but most of the restaurants are closed and the New York (City) market is closed.”
Even if people were to come to his business looking to charter one of his boats, Mr. Davis said the 10-person limit on gatherings wouldn’t make a trip worth the expense.
Despite the hardships the restrictions and safety measures have put on their businesses, Mr. Hooper and Mr. Davis seemed to support the efforts state and local governments have made to stop the outbreak.
“I guess they’re responding the best they can,” Mr. Davis said. “They need to stop people from upstate coming down (to the coast).”
Mr. Hooper said it’s a tough situation and “very dynamic.”
“I feel fortunate to live at the end of a dirt road in a town of 400 (residents),” he said. “The economic response from the federal government is just getting organized…It will be a complex process, hopefully it will be effective in keeping (commercial fishermen) financially solvent.”
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-723-7353, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.