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With restaurants closed, New England fishing industry grinds to a halt

“This is just going to be an economic disaster for us,” said Tim Linnell, who has been fishing from Chatham for 30 years and whose three sons, fishermen all, face similar pressures. “I’ll probably be put out of business soon.”
“This is just going to be an economic disaster for us,” said Tim Linnell, who has been fishing from Chatham for 30 years and whose three sons, fishermen all, face similar pressures. “I’ll probably be put out of business soon.”John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

CHATHAM — Over the past few months, Tim Linnell has spent countless hours and thousands of dollars installing dredges and other expensive equipment on his steel dragger, preparing with hundreds of other fishermen across the region for the upcoming season.

Then the market for his catch cratered, like so many other businesses in recent weeks.

Now, the 52-year-old fisherman — saddled with mortgages on his two boats, hefty docking fees, and a host of other expenses — has nowhere to sell the mussels he would have caught.

“This is just going to be an economic disaster for us,” said Linnell, who has been fishing from Chatham for 30 years and whose three sons, fishermen all, face similar pressures. “I’ll probably be put out of business soon.”

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Fishing boats sat idle at the Boston Fish Pier on Northern Avenue.
Fishing boats sat idle at the Boston Fish Pier on Northern Avenue. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

With restaurants throughout the world closed due to the coronavirus, the region’s lobstermen, scallopers, and others who land much of the nation’s $5.6 billion commercial catch are facing economic devastation, with many forced to tie up or store their boats in dry dock until the market rebounds.

“No market equals no fishing,” said John Pappalardo, chief executive of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “Markets are disintegrating daily.”

In a recent letter to President Trump and congressional leaders, representatives of the commercial fishing industry said the closure of much of the nation’s economy has put tens of thousands of jobs in jeopardy, including those who process, package, distribute, and cook fish.

“The sudden near-shutdown of restaurants and other storefronts has caused demand to evaporate overnight, threatening the continued economic viability of the entire supply chain,” they wrote in a letter signed by nearly 200 seafood companies and other fishing organizations.

Their message was heard, and the federal government’s $2 trillion economic stimulus package included $300 million for fishermen, which will be distributed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Commercial fishing boats anchored in Chatham Harbor.
Commercial fishing boats anchored in Chatham Harbor. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In addition, many fishermen will be eligible for emergency loans of $10,000, up to $600 a week of additional unemployment insurance over the next four months, and other benefits, such as loan forgiveness. That’s on top of the $1,200 stimulus checks the government plans to send most Americans.

But it’s unclear when and how the $300 million will make its way to fishermen and others in the industry who have seen their incomes vanish. In a letter to the US Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, Senator Ed Markey asked officials to clarify how the aid will be allocated and urged them to distribute it quickly.

Markey noted that previous disaster relief efforts took a long time to implement. After an outbreak of red tide in 2005, for example, it took two years before the money made its way to fishermen.

“We cannot afford similar delays during this crisis,” he wrote. “These are dire times.”

NOAA officials declined to say how or when the money would be distributed.

“We will . . . work with our stakeholders and congressional partners to expedite the $300 million,” Allison Ferreira, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said in a statement.

Many in the seafood industry echoed Markey’s concerns about NOAA and urged Congress to set aside more aid for fishermen.

“The $300 million is not going to be enough,” said Bob Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents commercial fishermen.

In New England, where the price of seafood such as lobster has dropped by as much as 75 percent, many fishermen have decided it isn’t worth the cost of burning fuel and buying bait if the catch won’t cover their costs. Fishermen have been classified as essential workers, so they can continue to work, but many are staying at home.

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“Pretty much everything has come to a screeching halt,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

Even if restaurants reopen and the export market resumes normal sales in the coming weeks or months, problems lie ahead.

Casoni worries what would happen to prices if lobstermen start fishing in great numbers all at once. “It’s like picking all your watermelons in September; there’s going to be a glut,” she said of lobsters, the nation’s most valuable fishery in 2018 at $684 million.

Scallopers have fared better in recent weeks. While the price they earn from the restaurant business — typically the vast majority of sales — has declined by about a third, the price they receive from supermarkets and other large retail stores has remained stable while demand for frozen scallops has surged.

But there’s great uncertainty about how the market will change in the coming weeks, especially as many buyers go into the red.

“At this point, we’re worried that the price will not continue to hold,” said Andrew Minkiewicz, an attorney at the Fisheries Survival Fund, a Washington-based group that represents the scallop industry. “Customers are going to start delaying payments.”

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In Maine, where the lobster industry plays an outsized role in the economy, officials said fishing has declined significantly. In a recent letter to Trump, Governor Janet Mills wrote that “only a handful of lobster boats were out tending their gear, when there are typically hundreds fishing."

Lobster landings so far this year have been down so much they “could result in a roughly $50 million loss in fishery value for that period," Mills said.

“Greater losses are expected in the future, due to depressed prices,” she wrote, adding that similar losses are expected for those who target groundfish and other shellfish in Maine.

Some fishermen have turned to hawking their catches on Facebook, selling to friends and neighbors.

“This could be an important opportunity for fishermen, but it’s not going to be the answer,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, which has set up a Facebook group to connect fishermen with local buyers.fisher

On a recent afternoon in Chatham, where just one fishing boat was moored in the harbor, the cedar-shingled office of the town’s harbormaster was closed to the public, the parking lot empty, and nearby shipyards were full of boats still covered in shrink wrap.

This is usually a busy time around Cape Cod’s largest fishing port, when some 250 scallopers, lobstermen, and groundfishermen start gearing up for the spring season.

“The markets are drying up," said Stuart Smith, Chatham’s harbormaster. “We’re expecting difficult times.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.