Captain Garry Libby doing a test tow for cold-water shrimp. The fishery collapsed in 2014 and was shut down. (Photo credit: Ben Martens)

USA - Fishermen Hope for Change as the Seafood Industry Faces a Crisis

The pandemic and climate change are creating extreme hardship among small-scale fishermen. A new order boosting offshore aquaculture and relaxing fishery regulations is adding to existing U.S. wild fisheries’ woes.

Earlier this month, President Trump traveled to Maine to announce plans to reopen a vast marine preserve, created by President Obama in 2016, to commercial fishing. While ostensibly aimed at helping New England fishermen catch more fish and expand their businesses, Maine fishermen—and fishermen across the United States—are grappling with a sobering reality that the president’s controversial plan won’t solve: They can’t sell their fish.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, only half of the fish harvested by Maine fishermen in May sold, and prices averaged 18 percent less in comparison to May the prior year. Landings were also down by more than half, at 44,495 pounds, because many fishermen aren’t going out to sea while the restaurants that are their main markets remain shuttered.

“It’s been a difficult slog over the past couple of months,” says Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fisherman’s Association, emotion rising in his voice. “It’s just really scary right now, with the marketplace and COVID, and thinking about how we protect the fishing heritage.”

For Martens, the president’s visit was a missed opportunity to address the real problems facing Maine fishermen. Very few, he says, even fished in the Northeast Canyon and Seamounts stretch of deep ocean before Obama designated it a marine monument to protect its fragile ecosystem and the sea turtles, mammals, and other life it supports.

Since March, Martens’ organization has been helping Maine fishermen create business plans that will build resiliency into their future, as they face a multitude of challenges, including the pandemic, climate change, competition over ocean resources, and uncertainty over pending regulations to protect the endangered right whale.

Small-scale fishermen in coastal communities across the U.S.—from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska—continue to face daunting challenges during the pandemic. Recent policy actions—including the reopening of Northeast Canyons, the president’s aquaculture executive order from last month, and the coronavirus relief programs passed by Congress—have failed to address the problems or provide real support.

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