Adding one more big element to our uncertainty

Mar 25, 2020 | Over the Bar

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Seufert

By John Pappalardo

Uncertainty has always been a silent, unwelcome partner to a fisherman.

Wild weather, the mysterious movements and actions of fish, natural patterns beyond anyone’s control, balky equipment, shifting regulations, big price swings in the market, even climate change – I could go on.

And now comes another huge uncertainty, how a virus we call corona and the illness it brings, Covid-19, will change this world and our small part of it.

Nothing matters compared to the health and wellbeing of our families, our friends, our community, strangers for that matter. Here at the Fishermen’s Alliance we are committed to taking every possible care, to do our part to keep this virus in check, stop its spread, and get us back to a semblance of normalcy as fast as possible.

In the immediate moment there are tangible things, for example needing to reschedule our annual meeting this week, with hopes that we will convene in May. We’re sad about that but those are things we can be flexible about and control, at least to some extent. We can wash our hands, limit personal contact (much as we prefer being together), act responsibly, do our best to take care of business and family without panic, with good humor.

Tougher to see and predict are ways this virus will impact the historic industry itself, the men and women and their families who carry on in the face of this and every uncertainty. But let’s say this: No way it helps.

Fishing has always been among the most resilient of livelihoods. Generations have been able to turn to a fertile sea with not much more than their own skills and effort, and independent, often enough alone, return with a product that weathers economic disasters because, after all, people always need to eat. During global crises like the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, Cape Codders fared much better than most because we fished, we scratched, and, if nothing else, put food on our tables.

But this crisis is not an economic collapse, even though it threatens to create one. And this is not the world of the 1930s. We are far more connected to and dependent on global events and economies. Indeed, that is the reason why a virus like this can leap across continents, because we no longer are isolated islands.

So all the musing aside, are there things we can point to that this “new reality,” as some have called it, are sure to mean for our fleet?

The infrastructure that moves our fish, from trucking to processing to markets and restaurants, is sure to be affected. Much of the work that brings fish to the public is hand over hand. We have never taken that for granted, but that truth is highlighted now. Fresh and frozen fish will remain among the best and healthiest protein sources, and in real practice very little needs to change to keep that so. But as with everything, there will be more caution, and probably more expense.

International embargoes and bans will cut into the market for some of our local catch, because what would usually move to Europe and the Far East is being blocked or slowed down. With that demand interrupted, we suspect that we will see pressure on the prices our fishermen can command.

On the flip side, perhaps this will be an opportunity for more of the fish we catch locally to be sold and eaten here. As social distancing and even self-quarantine keep some people away from restaurants, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that great fish meals at home are a wonderful alternative?

What remains to be seen is how our summer economy, as crucial to the fisheries as it is to every part of Cape Cod, will fare in a few short months. Once again, given how much our tourism economy depends on foreign travel, be it for visitors or workers, it’s impossible to make a case that this is any kind of good news. Will the rebuilt Chatham fish pier once again welcome throngs of visitors to watch the offloading, who then amble down the street and order a great fish dinner? I surely hope so, but my crystal ball is very murky.

And so, as we hunker down and take care of each other, uncertainty might grow, but that will not overcome another thought of which we are certain, expressed in a way most apt for Cape Cod and the fishing community:

Together, we will weather this.

(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)


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