Coronavirus: Seafood Industry Comes to 'Screeching Halt,' But Some Businesses Adapting

Eureka-based fisherman Harrison Ibach started selling fish off his boat, the 42-foot Oceana, to make up for losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of Oceana Hooknline Seafood)

Like farming and other food industries, commercial fishing is considered an essential business to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the seafood industry has been hit hard by the crisis. Closures to restaurants that aren’t set up for takeout and the collapse of export markets have left California fishermen and seafood suppliers scrambling for new ways to sell their product.

Harrison Ibach, a commercial fisherman based out of Eureka in Humboldt County, says that when the coronavirus hit the U.S., his business dried up practically overnight.

“Oh, man, the seafood industry has pretty much come to a screeching halt,” Ibach said.

Since 2008, he's fished for black cod, rockfish, salmon and crab out of the Woodley Island Marina. Most of his catch goes to high-end fish restaurants in San Francisco. But now, Ibach says, those restaurants aren’t buying.

“We now know that the vast majority of Americans really enjoy seafood,” Ibach said, “But we've also learned that they really enjoy eating seafood at restaurants.”

Kenny Belov has co-owned and operated Fish., a waterfront seafood restaurant in Sausalito, for 16 years. He says that menus at restaurants like his aren’t designed for takeout; customers want fish cooked and served to them fresh.

“It's a hard ask for people to spend a lot of money on really high- quality ingredients prepared well and have all of that stuff thrown in a box,” Belov said.

As a result, many seafood spots are doing a fraction of their usual business, or they're shutting down. Belov has had to furlough 42 of his restaurant’s workers. He says his wholesale business, which supplies about 250 restaurants throughout the Bay Area, has been hit hard, too.

Trying to Adapt

With a skeleton staff, Belov has revamped a limited menu at Fish that’s tailored for takeout.

“We've had a little bit of success,” Belov said. “Not enough to justify expenses, but definitely enough to justify opening the door. And also just for our guests’ sake, to give them a place to come get nutritious food and be able to take it home. We feel it's important for our community that has been supportive to us for 16 years.”

Ibach has had to adapt too. Along with the drop in restaurant orders, he says the export market has dried up, and suppliers who normally buy fish to freeze don’t want to stockpile a product they have no demand for.

“As we watch these markets literally disappear overnight, we're terrified,” he said. “We’re scared to lose everything.”

Ibach, who has a wife and two young children, says he has gotten creative in response. He recently started to sell fish directly off his boat, the 42-foot Oceana, at Woodley Island, and his wife put up a Facebook page to help bring in business.

A 12-hour fishing trip on a recent Friday brought in rockfish, lingcod and crab that attracted a lot of customers.

“We actually had a huge line that lasted all day until we pretty much sold out of everything,” Ibach said. He’s hoping the off-the-boat sales, along with the coronavirus relief funds he's applied for, will be enough to hold him over until the pandemic passes.

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During the COVID-19 crisis, some consumers are turning to community-supported fisheries, or CSFs, to supply them with fresh seafood to cook at home. CSFs work like a farm box for fresh seafood that’s caught by local fishermen and delivered to customers’ doors — on ice.

Alan Lovewell, a commercial fisherman based out of Moss Landing on Monterey Bay, specializes in supplying restaurants with live fish. While Lovewell says he likely won’t have a market for them, he also runs a CSF called Real Good Fish.

“We’ve got rockfish, petrale sole, spot prawns,” he said. “Whatever’s coming in, we put in a box and you get it the next day.”

He says the CSF model gives fishermen, who’ve now lost their other markets, a chance to stay afloat. “When this crisis hit, we said, ‘well, we better ramp this up,’” Lovewell said.

In March, the company fast-tracked a planned expansion. It’s now supplying seven states, including California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona, with fresh-caught seafood.

Lovewell says the coronavirus relief money likely won’t keep all commercial fishermen in business, but he’s hoping that some can adjust and pull through.

“Everyone is adapting right now. Everyone's trying to figure out, what does the world look like. Not just now, but what is it going to look like in a week from now, a month from now? And how do I start making decisions to prepare for that?”