How can fishermen be sure their vessels are clean of coronavirus contamination? Where can they find out about relief funds that are newly available for fishermen?
COVID-19 has Alaska’s seafood industry traveling in uncharted waters as more fisheries continue and get underway, and fishermen and processors prepare for a salmon season that’s just a month away. Information in an upside-down world changes daily, making it tough to plot a course.
United Fishermen of Alaska has crafted a “one stop shop” for the latest fishing-related COVID-19 updates, including onboard checklists for fishing vessels and tenders, protocols for crews coming and going and more.
“We have all the mandates the state has put in place, the UFA updates that we send out weekly, helpful documents to download, the onboard procedures telling fishermen what they need to do to have a season, and a tab for economic relief and links to other resources and websites,” said Frances Leach, UFA executive director.
Fishermen can apply for a Paycheck Protection Program that offers $350 billion in low-interest loans to small businesses implemented through the Small Business Administration.
Also offered are low-interest loans related to COVID-19 impacts for businesses with up to 500 employees, up to $2 million per business, with relaxed collateral requirements.
And for the first time, because fishermen are designated as “essential U.S. food producers,” they can apply for extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.
“Deckhands who work under 1099s previously were not eligible for unemployment. Now that has changed and if you are working under a 1099 you are eligible for unemployment and you can apply under the state,” Leach said.
“Federal law now extends UI benefits for the first time to the self-employed. This is a brand new program, and we are diligently working with the U.S. Department of Labor to address the requirements and system preparedness including: I.T. upgrades, training and staffing to accommodate the added workload,” Tamika Ledbetter, Alaska Dept. of Labor and Workforce Development commissioner, wrote on April 2 in the Anchorage Daily News.
Ledbetter added, “The federal legislation extends the eligibility period by 13 weeks and includes a weekly benefit payment of $600. Both the currently covered unemployment insurance recipients and the newly covered self-employed will be eligible for the $600 payment.”
Fishermen also will get a $300 million chunk of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in direct assistance that also includes charter and subsistence fishermen, processors, fishery dependent businesses and coastal communities.
“This assistance is structured similar to fishery disaster payments, but the delivery of the funds will be quicker by allowing the money to be awarded on a rolling basis, even while a season is still underway, and forgoing the usual requirement for the governor to declare a disaster,” the UFA website says. An additional federal relief package also is in the works.
United Fishermen of Alaska is the nation’s largest commercial fishing trade group with 35 member organizations. Leach said a top priority today is protecting communities while the fleets go fishing.
“We are fully aware that communities are very concerned about allowing commercial fisheries to happen in their regions,” Leach said. “Since day one, our first priority was ‘how can we protect these communities while still having a successful fishery.’ Our first effort has been to put protocols in place to protect communities and fishermen so that we are not continuing to spread this virus and put undue burdens on communities.”
Since January, fishing has been ongoing for Alaska pollock, cod, perch, rockfish and a big mix of other whitefish from the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.
Kodiak’s roe herring fishery kicked off on April 1 with a nearly 1,500 ton harvest limit. About 8 boats are out on the water amid reports of lots of good fishing.
Kodiak also will get a Dungeness crab opener on May 1.
Bering Sea crabbers by last week had taken 90 percent of their 30.6 million pound snow crab quota.
At Prince William Sound, 93 boats signed up for the shrimp pot fishery that runs from April 15 to 26. The catch of big spot shrimp is set at 68,100 pounds.
A sablefish fishery for 167,000 pounds also opens at PWS on April 15 for 56 permit holders. Alaska halibut landings were nearing 730,000 pounds out of a 17 million pound catch limit; sablefish (black cod) catches topped 2.5 million pounds out of a 26 million pound quota.
A bait herring fishery at Upper Cook Inlet opens from April 20 to the end of May. A combined take of 150 tons can be taken from four areas by a fleet of 10 to 20 set or drift gillnetters. A smelt fishery will open May 1.
There is some rare good news for Chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska. Winter troll catches drive the summer numbers and a slight 3,000 fish boost through March 15 means the summer harvest will top 201,100 kings for all users – that’s 65,000 more Chinook salmon than last year.
How can Americans help a seafood industry and fishing communities clobbered by the coronavirus?
“Just buy seafood, eat seafood and repeat! We need to support our nation’s seafood communities by doing that as often as we can,” said Linda Cornish, president of the non-profit Seafood Nutrition Partnership which last week launched a 12-week “Eat Seafood, America” campaign in collaboration with 22 major industry groups.
Called the “Seafood4Health Action Coalition,” their “rapid response” goal is to help Americans stay healthy during the health crisis while also boosting the seafood economy.
The campaign urges people to build support for the eat fish effort by sharing pictures of their seafood meals on social media.
“Follow the hash tag #eatseafoodamerica, post a photo of their meal and share it on Instagram, Twitter or whatever social platforms they use. Go out there and urge people to buy seafood. It’s as simple as that,” Cornish said.
More than 60% of America’s seafood is eaten in restaurants and the eat seafood campaign encourages people to continue to order their favorites and do take out at restaurants or retail stores.
Grundens, for example, is promoting sales at www.localcatch.org. And more fishermen are talking about selling their “catch of the day” directly from the docks.
While Americans are hunkered down at home, Cornish said they still can take their taste buds on vacation.
“Think about going on a trip to Alaska and ordering some wild Alaska seafood. You’ve been wanting to go to Maine so try some lobsters or oysters or mussels, or go on that Florida trip or to the gulf. And there are so many seafood varieties you can have something different every day,” she said.
Along with supporting fishing dependent towns and families, Cornish pointed out that the healthy attributes of seafood can help protect against the coronavirus.
“Whatever coast you’re on, whatever segment of the supply chain you’re on, we all need help,” she added. Seafood is so good for you and I think the message is for people to try and get yourself as healthy as possible. Eat Seafood, America and let’s get through this together. We can do it.”