Fishing continues, despite market disruptions

Commercial fishing boats and fish-processing plants are an essential industry as part of the food-production chain, and as such, they continue to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jeremy Burke)

OREGON COAST — As part of the food-production chain, commercial fishing is considered an essential industry, but even though fishermen based out of Newport’s Yaquina Bay are still on the job, they have felt the impact of the current market disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With restaurants across the country either severely restricted or shut down entirely, the demand for seafood has dropped, and with it, the price for product being unloaded at the docks.

“The commercial fishery is ongoing at this point,” said Troy Buell, state fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, regarding the current commercial Dungeness crab season. “(But) the markets have been disruptive, so the price is lower that we’d expect this time of year.

“Some crabbers are still trying to stick it out, others have probably called it earlier than they normally would,” Buell added. “There still is some effort happening, for sure. It’s kind of hard to keep up with everything, but it sounds like the Chinese markets may be opening back up a little bit, so they’re able to start moving some live crab there, which is helping.”

When asked if the fish processing plants on the Newport Bayfront are still operating as usual, Buell said, “I don’t know a lot of details about it. All I can really say is they are lumped in with the agriculture and farming and food processing sectors as being essential businesses.”

The News-Times contacted Pacific Seafood in Newport for comment on the current status of its operation. That inquiry was directed to the company’s attorney, who, in turn, submitted the following response from Pacific Seafood’s president and CEO, Frank Dulcich.

“Pacific Seafood is among the select few critical infrastructure companies in the U.S. that are being called on to maintain our nation’s food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Dulcich. “Through conversations with our retail customers, we know they are experiencing challenges keeping enough proteins on shelves and filling the demand for more ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook products amid restaurant closures.”

Dulcich said Pacific Seafood is in a “unique position” to solve this critical need. “We have already begun flexing our production capabilities, leveraging our availability of frozen inventory and relying on the strength of our logistics operations and innovative packaging capabilities to rapidly meet customer needs in this unprecedented time.

“Pacific Seafood recognizes our unique responsibility to support our nation’s response to COVID-19 by continuing operations without interruptions to maintain our critical food supply,” added Dulcich. “We also stand with our customers and are supporting them by using our distribution network to ensure the delivery of essential products. I also want to thank each and every one of our team members for their continued commitment during this difficult time.”

A call from the News-Times to Juan Delgado, director of operations for Bornstein Seafoods, had not been returned as of press time on Thursday.

Local commercial fishermen who have stoped crabbing for this season are already gearing up for the next fishery.

“They go to a variety of other fisheries,” said Buell. “Some of them go to shrimp, some of them go to Alaska to participate in fisheries there, some of them do groundfish trawl, some of them go salmon and tuna fishing a little bit later. They participate in all kinds of other different fisheries. It’s really pretty individualized.”

Aaron Bretz, director of operations for the Port of Newport, said there really is no “normal” for the situation the country is facing, and that includes the commercial fishing industry. 

“The only thing I can say is we’re seeing a lot of gear coming back to the dock, and a lot of boats switching over to shrimp gear,” he said. “The live buyers are still doing a little bit of business, and the slime eels, or hagfish, are still coming in.”

Options for coastal residents wanting to purchase seafood for home consumption are also limited these days. However, the Chelsea Rose, which has sold seafood on the Newport Bayfront for many years, is still open for business at Port Dock 3 every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cari Brandberg, co-owner of the Chelsea Rose, said, “We’re outdoors, so we feel it’s a pretty safe option. We’re able to socially distance because of the way our boat’s set up — you’re not that close to the person that is helping you, and we only have one worker down there.”

The only fresh seafood available from the Chelsea Rose right now is live Dungeness crab, but they also offer canned tuna and salmon products, as well as a variety of flash-frozen, vacuum-packed filets — tuna, ivory salmon, black cod and more. They have also just started a local, doorstep delivery service to anywhere in Lincoln County. Details about this service can be found online at newporttuna.com.

“We also are shipping our canned fish through the postal service to people, and that’s also been pretty popular because that’s all Oregon caught and processed,” Brandberg said. “But a lot of our business was restaurants, and so that has affected us. The local support has been really important.”

Brandberg is also a member of the Albacore Tuna Commission and works for Living Pacific Seafood, so she has strong connections with the local fishing industry.

“Most boats are still trying to work. Fishing is an essential thing,” she said. “Fishing is food production, and we’re farmers of the ocean. It’s critical that we do continue to work because we are producing food.”

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