A Pandemic’s Effect on Fisheries – Personal Perspectives from Advisory Panel Members

[NEWSLETTER: Spring 2020]

 

“We received notice on the morning of March 17 that Dare County was being closed to visitors and only year-round residents would be allowed across the bridges,” said Captain Andy Piland, a charter captain from Hatteras, North Carolina, and a member of the Council’s Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel. “Checkpoints were set up that same afternoon. I haven’t booked a fishing charter since that day. Pretty much everything just closed.”

 

Photo courtesy of Andy Piland

 Dare County, North Carolina, was one of the first to close to visitors to help protect residents on the Outer Banks from the spread of COVID-19, but the story is very familiar to those living along the coast as the number of cases began to climb. Coastal communities established check points, boating and fishing access points closed, and retail businesses shuttered as we began dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in what now feels like a lifetime ago.

 

The impacts of the coronavirus continue to be felt around the world. Closer to home, we reached out to members of the Council’s advisory panels to learn how COVID-19 affected their fishing-related businesses and activities. The Council has 11 advisory panels or APs, including several species-related panels (Dolphin Wahoo, Mackerel Cobia, Shrimp, Snapper Grouper, etc.) with members that are knowledgeable about or involved in fisheries managed by the Council. These AP members provide valuable insight, perspective and recommendations as part of the fishery management process.

 

Captain Andy Piland, Charter Captain, Hatteras, NC

Photo courtesy of Andy Piland

For Captain Piland, owner and operator of Good Times Sportfishing in Hatteras, the Outer Banks have become “Groundhog Day,” with days running together and little to no traffic on the island since the checkpoints were established.  “I’m tired of working on my boat,” said Piland, who specializes in offshore trips onboard his 47-foot custom-made Carolina boat out of Hatteras Harbor Marina.

 

He usually hauls the boat in February and early March for repairs each year and kicks off the charter season in mid-April. But not this year. When we spoke on April 22, Captain Piland said he had already cancelled 19 offshore trips and would be cancelling 20 more before May 22. He had no choice. Without income, Captain Piland explained that he’s been careful about expenses.

 

Photo courtesy of Andy Piland

“We’re a village of 500 people that live here year-round,” explained Piland. “Our businesses depend on tourism. Most everything here is closed—marinas, hotels, restaurants, bait and tackle stores, real estate offices, hardware stores, seafood markets, you name it.” The only good news, he explained, was that the number of reported coronavirus cases on the Outer Banks has been minimal. “We know that we’re the lucky ones when it comes to dealing with the virus,” said Piland. “But it’s a catch-22. They’re going to open the island up to part-time residents in early May. And there’s talk of lifting the stay-at-home orders before the Memorial Day weekend. Most of my clients are from up north—hot spots (for coronavirus) like New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. The writing’s on the wall.”

 

Kerry Marhefka, Abundant Seafood, North Charleston, SC

A bit farther south, Mark and Kerry Markhefka, owners of Abundant Seafood operating out of Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, had been working around the clock to prepare for the opening of their brand-new brick-and-mortar seafood market in North Charleston. It was a dream come true for the small but successful seafood company. The Marhefkas have provided fresh snapper, grouper, and other finfish to high-end restaurants in Charleston and surrounding areas for years fresh off their boat, the F/V Amy Marie. The spic-and-span Abundant Seafood Market opened March 15 with seven new employees available to cut fish and provide product to restaurants as well as the public. Two days later, Governor McMaster issued orders that shut down all restaurants and bars in the state except for take-out.

 

“We were in shock at first,” said Kerry Marhefka, a member of the Council’s Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel. “We had a lot of fish to sell and then the orders from the restaurants just stopped. Very few of the restaurants we deal with were ready to start offering take out.” But the Marhefka’s make a daunting team and decided to keep the doors open, offering a free fish fry to those in need and working closely with the local business community, including Lowcountry Local First, a non-profit organization cultivating local businesses. “With guidance from Lowcountry Local, we were able to quickly navigate a complicated system and apply for PPP funds,” said Kerry. “We had to lay off our new employees and Mark and I have been working long hours to keep the new market open.”

 

The work has since paid off, with retail sales up as the demand for fresh local seafood increases. “With the pandemic, people are looking for an alternative to chicken that’s difficult to find and high-priced beef,” explained Kerry. “We’ve had to look at our sales and marketing in a new way, but I think we’re going to be okay.” Both Mark and Kerry have been involved in fisheries management for over a decade. They were recently recognized as honorees for the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Award that “spotlights the important and complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health.”

 

Dave Snyder, Chef and Restaurant Owner, St. Simons Island, GA

Photo courtesy of The Local Palate

For Chef Dave Snyder, owner of four restaurants in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, there was no alternative other than to close three of his four restaurants on the island. “I had no choice,” explained Chef Dave in his matter-of-fact manner. “I knew I could only support one restaurant for take-out service at about 30 percent of capacity and try to maintain some of my staff. I’ve received PPP funds to cover labor and overhead for the next few weeks [as of April 24],” said Snyder.

 

“But the big question is, when we reopen, what are we reopening to? We know how to weather a hurricane and how to reopen after one hits, but this is different,” explained Snyder. “It is hard for a restaurant to stay open and practice social distancing. We are a place to socially gather. It is our business to bring people together.” Chef Dave and his crew have weathered more than a few hurricanes, having volunteered to feed hundreds of victims of past hurricanes, including those devastated by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida in 2018.

As a member of the Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel, Chef Dave explained that the pandemic has provided lots of lessons. “I have a much better understanding of the importance of sustainable fisheries and the impacts felt when a fishery is closed,” said Snyder. “You shut down a fishery and people’s lives are impacted. If I can only use half of my tables when my restaurants reopen, it’s like a fisherman losing half of their quota. It has been eye-opening, but we’ll get through this.”

 

Jimmy Hull, Hull’s Seafood Restaurant and Market, Ormond Beach, FL

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Hull

Since 1984, Jimmy Hull has been catching fish, crabs, and other seafood from his own boats and selling them directly to locals and tourists alike from his seafood market near Daytona Beach. In 2012, he expanded and opened Hull’s Seafood Restaurant adjacent to the retail market, offering fresh off-the-boat seafood in a festive and often bustling environment. In March, the bustle stopped when the restaurant closed its doors to diners and became take out only.

 

“Everybody has a different story,” explained Hull, as he finished up a long day on the boat working crab traps. “Things have evolved in the last five weeks or so. Once all the restaurants closed, there were boats loaded with product without buyers. Now we have an idea of what we’re going to do. Things have shifted from ‘shock and overstock’ to a really busy retail business,” said Hull. He estimates his retail business is 40-50 percent higher than before the pandemic.

 

Photo courtesy of Jimmy Hull

“I’ve been very lucky because I have a retail seafood market that has been established for 45 years and that demand has been very high,” said Hull. “Unfortunately, my restaurant has been suffering and I had to lay off 58 people; my bartenders, hostesses, food runners, all had to go. And many of them still haven’t gotten relief in the form of unemployment,” said Hull, with frustration. “You are either not working at all or working hard now to produce food.” To meet the demand for fresh seafood and keep his boats and crews fishing, Hull now offers local delivery from his retail market. “Consumers still have to eat. We’re doing everything we can to be flexible and make the best of it.”

Jimmy Hull has been actively involved in fisheries management for decades, volunteering his time to participate in stock assessments and conduct cooperative research, and is currently serving as Chair of the Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel. When asked what lessons he’s learned thus far in dealing with the pandemic, Hull was quick to respond. “How important it is to be what I am: a commercial fisherman. There is a realization and appreciation now of local commercial fishermen and food production at the local level. It’s imperative that we recognize the need for American-produced food and products.” He went on to explain, “Things are changing and there is an evolving pandemic story. From shock to routine. Now we’re providing food and a service. We really are in this together and everyone has a role to play.”

 

Ira Laks, Charter Captain and Commercial Fisherman, Jupiter, FL

Photo courtesy of Ira Laks

“The timing for this pandemic couldn’t have been worse for fishing here in South Florida,” explained Ira Laks, owner of Relaks Charters in Jupiter, Florida. Marking his 30th year in the charter business, Captain Ira is an experienced charter captain and commercial fisherman and serves as Chair of the Council’s Mackerel Cobia Advisory Panel. According to Laks, the charter season in his area normally begins in February and peaks from March through July, representing about 65 percent of his annual business. “In March, I usually have at least 20 charters. This year, I ran five trips before things came to a screeching halt. April and May are my two busiest months between charters and tournaments.”

 

On March 23, Palm Beach County closed public boat ramps and marinas to recreational boating. Similar bans were implemented in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties to the south. “There was a lot of confusion over who could do what when the bans were announced, and that added to frustrations,” said Laks, who uses the local boat ramp in Palm Beach County. “There are no similar state-wide measures and it wasn’t clear if charters were allowed. We were basically shut down.” He noted that hotels, restaurants and other tourist-related businesses have been shuttered as well. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone talking with my local and state legislative representatives, asking questions and letting them know how bad things have gotten here.”

 

“We’ve been fortunate to have the intermittent commercial kingfish fishery this spring, but a lost trip is still a lost trip,” said Laks referring to his charter business. “You don’t get a lost day back.”  He also expressed concern about the future of his charter fishing business as well as the industry itself. “I’m worried that even when things open back up, who’s going to get on an airplane and come down here to fish? How long will it be before that happens again?” He noted that charter fishing is a disposable income activity and many of his repeat clients are also suffering financially during the pandemic. “I don’t cater to hedge-fund managers for Fortune 500 companies. I cater to waiters and small business owners.”

 

Like many others, he is also concerned about the spread of the coronavirus and the possibility of a second peak of COVID-19, noting that the majority of his charter customers are vacationers, many from northeast. “I fear that there will be a lot of full-time owner/operator charters and crew that won’t be able to survive this, especially if things remain slow or there is a second spike,” explained Laks. “We’ve survived hurricanes, economic downturns, and other hardships. But this pandemic could totally change the profile of the charter fleet here in South Florida if things don’t bounce back.”

 

Gary Nichols, Nichols Seafood, Islamorada, FL

Photo courtesy of Gary Nichols

With a positive attitude and support from his family, Gary Nichols owner of Nichols Seafood on Conch Key has weathered more than just a pandemic the past few months. A planned surgery for Gary was delayed in Miami as hospitals began to prepare for COVID-19 patients and shelter-in-place orders were being made. Then, Monroe County closed the Florida Keys to all visitors on March 22.  “I was aware early on about the pandemic. Our buyers in China contacted me in December to let me know that the market was declining for spiny lobster,” said Nichols from his home in Islamorada. “We’ve developed a profitable trade exporting live lobster to China over the past 12 years. We’ve managed to work around hurricanes and trade deficits, but this was different. The orders from China just stopped at a time when the Chinese New Year would bring the highest prices. We were left holding a lot of product.”

 

A family business, Nichols Seafood specializes in spiny lobster and stone crab production and has been operating for over 40 years. Gary is a member of the Council’s Spiny Lobster Advisory Panel, representing the industry in the Keys. “We quickly realized that we could freeze only so much lobster once demand stopped,” explained Nichols. “Then when restaurants began to close here at home, we had the same thing happen with the demand for our stone crabs,” said Nichols. “We’ve had to adapt and be creative in our marketing. We’re now selling quality product locally at a reduced price. There’s a demand and we’re getting by for now. The checkpoint into the Keys is still in place, but restaurants are opening for locals and we’ve seen an increase in local demand.” He noted that $23 million for fisheries relief funding was recently allocated to Florida. “I don’t know what will filter down, but at least it’s something. I also think we’ll see a good lobster season this year. You just have to keep being proactive in business and keep your faith.”

 

Update

Since conducting the initial interviews for this article back in mid-April, situations regarding the pandemic have been changing on an almost daily basis. Businesses on the Outer Banks are slowly reopening under North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s three-phased approach to lift restrictions. Captain Piland said he’s received a few calls from visitors asking about booking offshore charters out of Hatteras, but concerns linger about opening the Outer Banks too quickly. Chef Dave Snyder has reopened his restaurants on St. Simons Island for dining. Social distancing requirements will eliminate about half of his current seating (and income) and he’s looking for additional outdoor dining options.

 

Boat ramps and parks are now open in Palm Beach County and Captain Laks has been busy with charters primarily from local clients, but he’s still concerned about the long-term effects on travel, tourism and ultimately the charter industry in South Florida. Some of the advisory panel members have applied for and received SBA loans under the CARES Act. Others say they can’t afford another loan or that the loan process was too complicated and burdensome. Gary Nichols had his surgery in mid-May and received good news. He hopes to be back on the water again soon. Everyone agrees that this pandemic has reshaped our lives in some way.

 

Photo courtesy of Ira Laks

In March, the Council reached out to all of its advisory panel members, asking for input on how the pandemic has impacted their businesses, fishing activities and communities. More recently, Council members have asked advisory panel members to provide recommendations for temporary management measures that may help recovery from the negative impacts of the coronavirus. The Council will review the input and recommendations during its June 8-11, 2020, meeting to be held via webinar.

 

Special thanks to the advisory panel members who agreed to share their experiences for this article and to all of the Council’s advisory panel members for their contributions to fisheries management. Learn more at: https://safmc.net/about-safmc/advisory-panels/.

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