Seafood industry seeks support from Department of Agriculture

Fishing boats are tied up at the docks on Newport’s Yaquina Bay. (News-Times file photo)

OREGON COAST — The West Coast seafood industry is still reeling from the disruption that began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic stole the thunder from what was otherwise a very promising, high volume season. Processors are still looking for avenues to unload their frozen stock from last year, connect with new buyers and remove some of the congestion in the supply chain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently has $4 billion in funds from the American Rescue Plan designated to alleviate the impact the pandemic has had on various food supply chains, which will include support for seafood processing facilities and processing vessels.

The West Coast Seafood Processors Association (WCSPA), which represents both Pacific Seafood and Bornstein Seafoods in Newport, is currently working alongside the Oregon Trawl Commission to petition the USDA for its support. If it agrees, the USDA could purchase and distribute some of the industry’s excess stock, as well as help provide funding for worker protection grants.

The USDA has established channels to distribute food to children, low-income families, emergency feeding programs, Native American reservations and the elderly.

“It’s been a wild year, and we’ve been hit with waves of chaos and uncertainty. It’s really just been a scramble to adapt to the next thing coming at us,” WCSPA Executive Director Lori Steele said. “Most of the USDA focus in the past has been on farm-raised seafood, but now we’ve sent a letter of request to the USDA to get our foot in the door and hopefully get recognized for relief like so many other farmers and industries.”

Demand from the industry’s largest buyer, restaurants, fell by 70 percent nearly overnight when the first shutdowns hit last year, and the market still hasn’t recovered. According to the WCSPA, efforts to find new markets with non-traditional and domestic consumers haven’t born much fruit.

Pacific hake, pink shrimp, Pacific rockfish and Dungeness crab are the West Coast seafood industry’s main products, and each is still facing difficulties in its own market. Hake and shrimp are suffering mostly from excess frozen surplus, while the live crab market is still cut off from its biggest buyers in China, according to the WCSPA.

The WCSPA said processors have also been spending millions of dollars on personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, quarantining and facility modifications to ensure social distancing, but also find themselves in the midst of a labor shortage.

USDA support for the seafood industry is still up in the air for the moment, but the 2021 COVID Relief Bill allotted $1.5 billion for food and food commodity purchases that included seafood, as well as grants for members of the industry.

Even with help on the way, the WCSPA expects the fallout of the 2020 season will continue to cause problems through the 2021 primary fishing seasons and beyond, likening the situation to a long line of dominoes and noting it will likely take years for the seafood industry to recover.

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