WGBH In It Together

Impact of COVID-19 on Commercial Fishermen

Learn why commercial fishermen are essential workers and the economic impact of COVID-19 on those working in the fishing industry. WGBH’s In It Together podcast host and journalist Arun Rath interviews Heidi Sulman, Vice President of Public Health Policy for Fishing Partnership. 

Podcast Transcript

 

Arun Rath:
From 897 WGBH in Boston, this is In It Together. I’m Arun Rath.

When you think about essential workers, you likely think about nurses, doctors, grocery store workers or mailmen, but what about fishermen?  Joining me now to talk about how fishing communities and their families in Massachusetts have been impacted by the coronavirus is Heidi Sulman. She’s the Vice President of Public Health Policy for Fishing Partnership Support Services.

Heidi, thanks for joining us.

Heidi Sulman:
Thank you, Arun, it’s my pleasure.

Arun Rath:
So, first, tell us a bit of background about the Fishing Partnership, what you do and the services you provide.

Heidi Sulman:
Fishing Partnership is a nonprofit that has been around for 23 years. We serve the fishing industry. We are there to support the health, safety, and economic security of families up and down the Massachusetts shore and even some outside of the state. We started actually as a health insurance company because it was really difficult for fishermen to get health insurance at any sort of affordable rate. Then, after the Affordable Care Act passed we shifted to become more of a community health worker organization. So, we have navigators who are members of the fishing community themselves who help people in communities and fishing families themselves with all sorts of resources and late during COVID we have been very busy helping fishing families. We’re happy to be there.

Arun Rath:
Let’s talk about that. During the pandemic when businesses were shut down, what did that mean for fishermen and women? Did that mean that mean they were still going out or were they land locked for that time?

Heidi Sulman:
So, fishermen are essential workers as we always knew, but they don’t get paid if they don’t work. So, during and economic collapse crews are going to go out to work, unfortunately, even if they’re feeling ill. So, even pre-COVID their pay was really low. About two years ago the Department of Labor statistics showed that it was about $25,000, the average median wage for fishermen. That’s about a third less than for all occupations, so they really can’t afford not to go out. Then, compounding that is that fishermen aren’t covered by worker’s compensation. They don’t have to report to OSHA. They are exempt from minimum wage requirements. They are definitely going out. The problem is that while they’re going in fishing the demand for that product has just gone way, way down. There’s been a pretty serious economic impact.

Arun Rath:
Break that down for us, I don’t think most people have an idea of when we’re talking about people fishing in our local waters, where is that fish going and where has it stopped going now, I guess.

Heidi Sulman:
Well, the fish are still in the ocean, so the fishermen are still out, but most of that fish then gets sold and goes to restaurants. So, about 70% of local seafood is consumed in restaurants. So, restaurant closings had a huge and immediate impact on the demand for seafood. We saw recent reports saying that seafood sales in Massachusetts in March and April are down about 33% compared to last year and that breaks down to a $27M difference in those sales. That’s the first sale, coming from the fishermen to those, the first person buying it. The losses vary a lot by species, so things like lobster, crab, and clams are down 40 to 45%, but things like oysters, which most people don’t eat oysters around their home dining room table, so they’re down 68%.

One of our members told us that COVID just stopped everything. He said people are buying toilet paper, not lobster, and that’s just so true. Then, the other part of that is grocery spending. While it went up for all other sources of protein it didn’t for seafood. Most grocery stores reduced their offerings, so my local store right now had some salmon from, I think, Iceland, and some frozen cod and that was pretty much it. Most seafood in grocery stores now is frozen and not locally caught. So, really, the market just bottomed out.

Arun Rath:
All of that just sounds completely devastating. What have you been hearing from fishing communities during this time about what they’ve been going through?

Heidi Sulman:
You’re absolutely right. We’ve heard that people are really struggling in these communities. Their income was cut dramatically and suddenly. They’re having a hard time accessing government loans. They’re very worried about carrying crews due to the risk of contracting COVID. They’re having behavioral health issues, mental health issues, anxiety, some increases in substance use disorder and some overdoses. They’re facing housing insecurity. They’re unhappy with the government’s response to the pandemic. These are people who are already kind of hanging at the edge in some cases. As I noted they do have a lower median income than average. We know too that they are a group with historic and cumulative trauma. We know that the northeast ground fisheries were declared an economic disaster. A study by researchers at Northeastern show that 62% of captains had symptoms of severe or moderate PTSD a year after that began. This actually lasted for five years with about a third of fishermen experiencing severe PTSD at that time.

So I’m not distracting, I say fishermen because even female fishers seem to prefer being called fishermen, so I’m using their term.

Arun Rath:
Good to know.

Heidi Sulman:
That persistent PTSD from an economic stressor is pretty present and it feels like that’s showing us what fishermen and a lot of people right now are going to be expressing.

Arun Rath:
To throw this down on top of that. We talk a lot about vulnerable communities on this show. Everything you’ve laid out makes clear that this sounds like a very vulnerable community in many ways. Has the coronavirus been disproportionately hitting fishermen?

Heidi Sulman:
You know, I really think it has. They’ve been out working this whole time. I was lucky enough to work from my home office. They’re out on boats with a lot of people. They’re doing their best to be safe, but one of our members said, “Look, if I’m following the CDC guidelines I’m not fishing.”  They just cannot – it’s impossible on those to socially distance on a fishing boat. The average boats in New England are around 25 to 50 feet. There’s just no way to stay six feet away from your crew members all the time. We are feeling too like we need some targeted assistance with testing. The problem is not so much access to testing it’s that tests can take up to a week if not longer. By that point your crew is going to be out on the boat. That doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have rapid, accurate, accessible testing. We’re really hoping that we can get that assistance from the government or elsewhere to help support fishermen at this time.

Arun Rath:
If there ever was a community that needed rapid results, that would seem to be the one. What about more broadly, you talked about the issues with healthcare and other support services, how does health insurance work for fishing communities and their families?

Heidi Sulman:
We’re really – I think due to the work of Fishing Partnership going back now 23 years, we’ve helped fishermen and their families’ access health insurance. Now, they really access it through the health connector. The vast majority of fishermen are either independent employees or very, very small businesses that don’t offer benefits, so we sort of serve as their human resources agency of sorts. Our navigators can help fishermen access that health insurance as well as other resources like now, unemployment, food resources, mortgage or rent, things like that. We also help fishermen, as I note, help find testing. We’ve been offering some webinars based on financial resources, local sales, coping and mental health. We have a substance use disorder recovery group. We help them with health insurance and a host of other resources.

Arun Rath:
There’s a growing movement to eat fish from local catchers rather than imported. That’s in line with the local food movement Know Your Farmer thing. Are you seeing any of that and is any of that any help?

Heidi Sulman:
Absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned that. Fishermen absolutely have adapted by creating new ways to sell their product. There’s been an increase in direct sales or local sales. There’s been more of a focus on the local food supply chain and providing consumer education about seafood, so we’ve seen interest in things like the website localcatch.org, which helps people find local fish hailers whether that’s mall fish markets or individual fishermen selling right off the boat. They’ve really had a lot more activity during the pandemic. We’ve also seen people opening up, just opening up a storefront. So, it’s been really exciting to see that change towards moving towards a healthier food system, a local food system, and one that our fishermen have really see means a better price for the product for them and that’s actually a better price for the consumer because you’re cutting out several layers of people in between all of whom want to make a profit. That has been really exciting. I think – I’m not surprised that fishermen have developed these new ways of connecting with people, they’re really resilient. They’re used to dealing with crises and instability, and changing waters, injury, you name it. Coming out of every disaster I feel like they’ve found a new way to reshape the industry and move forward. We’re also hopeful that there’s a silver lining to this situation.

Arun Rath:
That would be great. If there are people who want to know more about some local seafood if they want to figure out how to get this onto their own plates, how do they do that?

Heidi Sulman:
I would suggest to go to localcatch.org. They have a local seafood finder. You can enter where you live and then a map pops up with links to all sorts of different options for local seafood. I’ve done it myself. I went to Gloucester and got some fish right off the boat and it was amazing.

Arun Rath:
All right, I’m getting hungry now. Heidi, it’s been really good to speak with you, thank you.

Heidi Sulman:

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

Arun Rath:
That’s Heidi Sulman. She’s the Vice President of Public Health Policy for the organization Fishing Partnership Support Services. Connecting Massachusetts from the Cape to the Berkshires, this is In It Together from WGBH radio in Boston, I’m Arun Rath.

END OF INTERVIEW

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