The bottom line of this issue is pretty clear - the impacts of COVID-19 on the South Atlantic fishing community are unprecedented. When the City of Charleston implemented one of the earliest “stay at home” orders in South Carolina in mid-March, like many, I thought it would pass in a few weeks, maybe a month. The devastating impact of this crisis soon became apparent as closures spread nationwide. Unlike the fishery disasters we are accustomed to, such as hurricanes where the damage is done quickly and we can move on to assessing and recovering, the impacts from the COVID-19 response continue to mount for most sectors of our fisheries.
From getting out and fishing for fun or profit, to collecting data on those fishing activities, to conducting surveys on the fish populations and working up the samples from past collections, everything we do has been impacted. Not all can be recovered. Just as a fisherman cannot fully make up for fish not sold to a restaurant or charter trips not taken, scientists cannot go back in time and conduct population surveys that were missed or sample recreational catches of trips taken since late March. These holes will persist into the future and data lost now will add to the uncertainty of future analyses. With most of our region slowly starting to ‘reopen’, fishery sampling efforts will hopefully be up and running again soon and the holes will start getting plugged. Looking farther ahead, if how we do business across the board is as fundamentally changed as some suggest, we may place greater importance on self-reporting approaches such as the forthcoming for-hire reporting requirements and voluntary opportunities like MyFishCount.
One of the questions we have been asked is what do all these changes in our world mean for fish populations? They are, of course, still out in the ocean doing what they do. Those that are experiencing reduced effort may get some population bump. Perhaps they will be a little easier to find and the limits will be a little easier to achieve once we get back to ‘normal’. But as with so many things in fisheries, there are few generalities that hold and how each population is impacted will depend on how we fisherman interacted with it during this time. Commercial, charter, and headboat effort is way down and even completely eliminated in many areas. Stocks exploited mainly by these sectors may benefit from reduced effort. On the other hand, there are signs that private angler effort has risen in some areas, after all gas is cheap and fishing can be a great way to ‘social distance’. Some stocks may therefore be experiencing increased effort.
Council operations have changed substantially as we deal with the crisis. So far we have held several Advisory Panel meetings, a long SSC meeting, and will soon hold a Council meeting entirely by webinar. More will come. These webinar meetings can be challenging to both staff and participants, and thankfully our community has risen to the challenge and kept critical business moving along. I give thanks to our staff who have put in the extra effort to prepare and conduct these recent meetings, and to our Council members, advisors and constituents who have shown great patience and understanding as we do the best we can with what we have been given.[Return to the Newsletter]