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Seafood industry seeks to weather coronavirus

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Two of the North Coast’s largest seafood processors have reopened in time for one of Oregon’s biggest fisheries after an outbreak of the coronavirus among workers.

Pacific Seafood in Warrenton and Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria are returning to business with numerous safety precautions in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

Pacific Seafood

Pacific Seafood in Warrenton reopened after a coronavirus outbreak.

Fishing, an industry that always juggles some degree of uncertainty even in the best conditions, now faces many more unknowns because of the coronavirus.

“The whole thing is a nightmare,” said Lori Steele, the executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

The commercial season for Pacific whiting, or hake, opened Friday. It is Oregon’s largest fishery by volume and a time of maximum production for many processors.

In a normal year, workers would stand nearly shoulder to shoulder on the line during an offload. Many would be seasonal hires, ready to put their heads down and slog through long 10 to 12 hour days.

Now there are the plexiglass dividers some seafood processors have installed to separate workers and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, temperature sensors and health screenings. But in the bigger picture painted by the pandemic, Steele said, the outbreaks at Bornstein Seafoods and Pacific Seafood are “just a blip.”

Besides the additional costs of new safety measures and protective equipment, hand in hand with the pandemic come market issues, export problems and shipping delays and disruptions.

“The impacts of this whole pandemic over the last couple of months are much, much more significant than anything that’s happening at these two facilities,” Steele said. “This has just given the industry here, I guess, a reality check in a way.”

Backed up

As many counties in Oregon begin to reopen their economies, the fishing industry is feeling the effect of restaurant closures and restrictions. Freezers are backed up with crab, tuna and all kinds of products.

Some overseas markets are beginning to remerge, but many domestic markets remain in flux.

“That’s a huge struggle and it’s a huge impact, but everybody wants to stay in business,” Steele said. “So the processors still want to buy fish. They still want to have fish to process and keep the fishermen working. It’s a huge supply chain.”

Impacts to one corner of the industry echo in another. For many fishermen, processors are among their first purchasers.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Oregon’s salmon and albacore commissions, has heard some processors have held on to whole frozen albacore and frozen loins.

Normally the fish would have been distributed over the winter and spring, but some processors have struggled to move the product as different markets compressed or closed down because of the coronavirus.

“We haven’t started albacore season yet … so how that will impact purchase power when the season comes, I don’t know,” Fitzpatrick said.

The commercial albacore season off the Oregon Coast typically runs from June through October, with the majority of the tuna landed in August.

Beyond the markets, the spread of the coronavirus remains a major concern to crews on the water and impacts many of their decisions.

In April, whiting and groundfish fishery representatives pushed for — and received — a two-week temporary waiver from human, at-sea observer coverage requirements over concerns about exposing crews and plant workers to the coronavirus.

Ahead of the whiting fishery opener, the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative based in Newport partnered with state and local health officials to test all crew members associated with the cooperative.

For local salmon fishermen, concerns about the coronavirus means some are leaving for docks and fishing grounds in Alaska earlier than usual to comply with quarantine measures in that state.

Leaving earlier

The full economic fallout remains unknown and stimulus and relief money, while welcome, will not cover the damage.

A federal stimulus package allocated $300 million to fisheries, $16 million of which is coming to Oregon as disaster relief funds. The money can go to commercial fishing businesses, charter and for-hire fishing businesses, certain aquaculture operations, processors and other related businesses.

The initial ask to Congress from the fishing industry was for $1.5 billion for fishery disaster relief.

Oregon’s seafood processors have easily lost at least 35% of their revenue — one of the benchmarks for possible funding — and more, Steele said.

Many fishermen and fishing guides are considered independent contractors and may not have been able to qualify for unemployment if their income has taken a hit because of the coronavirus.

All of these groups will be dipping from the same CARES Act pot.

“It’s not going to be nearly enough,” Steele said.

The HEROES Act, passed last week by the U.S. House but unlikely to clear the U.S. Senate, would provide an additional $100 million for fishery relief funding — significant but ultimately just another drop in the bucket, industry groups say.

Oregon Sea Grant Fisheries Extension, associated with Oregon State University, hopes to track and document the impacts of the coronavirus on Oregon’s seafood industry. A team has sent out a survey and plans to share the results with local, state and federal decision-makers.

“We obviously can’t guarantee that better decisions will be made — but we hope that they will at least be informed decisions,” the team wrote in an email to fishing communities.

For now, Steele expects safety measures at plants specific to the coronavirus will need to be in place for a while.

“Obviously it’s changing the world,” she said of the pandemic. “I don’t think there are many businesses that after this is all over are going to go back to the way it was. I don’t know where we’re all going to end up in terms of permanent changes.”

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.

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