Nfld. & Labrador

COVID-19 brings financial and physical worry for fish harvesters

The COVID-19 pandemic could make the fishing season more dangerous than ever, and fish harvesters are also worried about what price they'll get for their catch.

The crab season will have an extra element of danger — and then there's the price

F/V Frigidland captain Ladd Norheim, right, and son Taylor sort dungeness crab on the fishing grounds in southeast Alaska on June 29, 2008. (Klas Stolpe/The Associated Press)

Fish harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador are facing a stream of worries as they start to prepare for a possible crab season in May.

The COVID-19 pandemic could make the fishing season more dangerous than ever, and that's on top of concerns about what price harvesters will get for their catch, as the fish market appears to be softening around the world.

"Whatever way this goes, it's going to be a very hard year in the fishery, I think, overall," said Jason Sullivan, a fisherman on the Avalon Peninsula. "There's no way to sugarcoat that."

Sullivan was an influential player in the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador, before it disbanded last year. Now he helps moderate an online fishing forum on Facebook, with thousands of users.

Jason Sullivan answers questions during an interview with CBC News in 2017. Sullivan was an executive with the Federation of Independent Sea Harvesters of Newfoundland and Labrador before the group dissolved. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

He said DFO's release of the snow crab management plan — which saw an average quota increase of about 10 per cent — has lifted the spirits of some fish harvesters. Still, he figures others are going to have a tough decision to make this year.

"If they do open the fishery, and I says, 'Well, jeez I'm not going fishing, I don't feel safe,' the bank is going to call me and say, 'Jason, why didn't you make your payments?'" he said. "Do you think they're really going to care?"

The Fish, Food & Allied Workers union has asked DFO to delay the start of the crab season once again, this time asking for it to be pushed back until May 11. No decision has been announced yet.

Safety protocols called 'useless'

This week, the Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvester Safety Association released its guidelines for fishing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 12-step list of safety protocols is receiving mixed reviews from inshore harvesters, who say some of the recommendations aren't realistic.

Fishermen sort crab onboard a boat near Quebec in 2018. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

"When I read down through it, I looked at a lot of it there as just not achievable for most of the inshore boats, at least," said Gerard Hounsell, a harvester living in Centreville-Wareham-Trinity. "Some of it is not achievable with even the larger boats."

Hounsell fishes out of a longliner, with relatives. He said most of the similar-sized fishing boats out there don't have the facilities for running water or hot water — or hand sanitizer.

"I've been looking for it for months, and it's just not around to be bought," he said.

Hounsell said the recommendations to remove shared utensils and condiments in the eating area does make sense.

The protocols also call for physical distancing and limiting exposure to other people on land before the vessels are boarded, screening crew and technicians boarding the vessel, and the use of masks and physical distancing on the boat — if possible.

For Hounsell's nephew, Jason Elliott, it's not.

Tammy Elliott says she'll be more comfortable going to sea if the COVID-19 case count in Newfoundland and Labrador remains low. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

He and his partner, Tammy Elliott, fish on a 31-foot boat, out of Eastport. After the gear is loaded on board the 15-foot long deck, things can get tight, leaving little room for physical distancing.

"Out on a fishing vessel, it's not going to be easy to do. It can't be done," Tammy Elliott said. "Two metres? You'll never do it. We don't have the room."

She said hauling up crab pots means mud and water splash in your face, making mask use difficult.

In a press release, the authors of the safety protocols acknowledged the guidelines will have to change with new evidence, and adapt to each particular circumstance.

"The intention is that harvesters will apply what they can from this document to ensure the safest work environment possible for themselves and their fellow crew members," said Brenda Greenslade, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fish Harvesting Safety Association.

But Sullivan called the document "useless."

Elliott's boat has a deck that's about 15 feet long and 10 feet wide. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"There was absolutely no reason to delay the fisheries for … three weeks, now, to see the like of that," he said.

"All this stuff about distancing and putting curtains up in your bunk and stuff, that's so silly. I mean everyone's in the boat touching doorknobs and touching stuff, there's basically germs everywhere."

He said fish harvesters will have to acknowledge they'll be at risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19, if it's brought onto a boat by a crew member.

"All that stuff is impossible to do, they just gotta tell people the truth," he said

And then, the money

For Sullivan, the physical concerns are only half of it.

He's also worried about what the price of crab will be this year, in light of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There's neither restaurant open from here to Tokyo," he said.

He said the industry is going to need financial support, and said it makes more sense for government to supplement the price of fish this season than to have to "bail out" all the fish harvesters and processors afterwards.

Elliott shares Sullivan's concern on price, and more. She's worried that if the crab season is delayed — and extended on the other end — it will start to bleed into the capelin fishing season, something her and her partner also plan to participate in this year.

Elliott and her husband own multiple fishing licences, which means they have a lot of money invested in the inshore fishery. They get most of their catch in this 31-foot boat. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"We've got to fish every species possible. We do crab, we do cod, we do lobster, squid. You name it, we've got to take hold of whatever species we can do," she said.

"And I'm just hoping that the crab fishery is not going to be the only thing that we're going to have to try and make a livelihood on this year."

Elliott and her partner own multiple licences, so she's running a bigger operation than most people.

"I'm sure I speak for 75 per cent of the people, that we want to go back to work, but safety first," she said. "We've got a lot on the line, and our lives, we risk them every day that we're out on the water."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

With files from The Broadcast


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