Local Catch Network (LCN) May 2021

Local Catch Network (LCN)

May 2021 Impact Assessment II

Completed by Joshua Stoll, UMaine, Local Catch Network

Compared to pre-COVID normal, are there dimensions of your sector that have experienced a sustained increase or reduction in activity? What aspects of Pandemic disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?     

All sectors of the US seafood economy were impacted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, including small- and mid-scale seafood companies engaged in local and direct seafood marketing. Overall, sales in the commercial fishing sector alone decreased by 29 percent over the first 7 months of the pandemic, as compared to the 5-year average (NOAA 2021). Multiple compounding factors contributed to the decline in sales, including reduced global trade, bottlenecks in processing and distribution, diminished fishing effort, and changes in consumer behavior (Love et al. 2021).

Here we revisit several of the impacts and adaptations that we reported on in our Rapid Impact Assessment in July 2020:

  • Loss of markets. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 65% of seafood in the United States was consumed in restaurants (by value) (Love et al. 2020). More than one year into the pandemic, the restaurant sector has still not fully recovered. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restaurants added nearly 300,000 jobs in February 2021, but total employment in the sector remains 16% below pre-COVID-19 levels (NSA 2021). It remains unclear how, when, or if the restaurant sector will fully recover from the impacts associated with COVID-19, but at this point, the loss of this key market represents an area of sustained reduction.
  • Reduction in fishing effort. COVID-19 created a number of challenges for commercial fishing businesses, delaying fishing seasons, creating challenges for recruiting and maintaining crew, and making it difficult to be on the water. These challenges, in combination, contributed to a decline in overall fishing activity. In Alaska, for example, harvest levels were down by 15% during the first six months of 2020 compared to 2019 (NMFS 2021) and the number of requests for Emergency Medical Transfers[1] in the iconic Bristol Bay salmon fishery spiked because fishermen based in the continental US were unable to travel to Alaska for the fishing season (Welch 2020). In Maine’s lobster fishery, trips were down by 15% compared to the previous year (K. Reardon, personal communications). We anticipate that the decline in fishing effort observed in 2020 will be temporary as fishing activities rebound with the recovery of markets and it becomes easier to travel/operate on fishing vessels once people are vaccinated.
  • Lack of sufficient infrastructure. The lack of adequate physical infrastructure (e.g., piers, hoists, cold storage, etc.) to effectively offload, process, and store catch for local and regional distribution is a persistent issue for small-scale fishing operations. In a study we conducted prior to the pandemic (winter 2019), fisheries experts ranked lack of sufficient and scale-appropriate infrastructure as one of the top issues facing small-scale operators. This issue was not addressed during the pandemic and we anticipate that it will continue to be a long-term constraint, unless there is a significant investment in our nation’s working waterfronts. Soft infrastructure to support online and direct marketing increased during the pandemic. We anticipate that e-commerce platforms, websites, seafood finders, and catch directories are illustrative of a permanent change in seafood marketing and trade.
  • Increase in local and direct sales. In March 2020, seafood businesses involved in local and direct seafood marketing, started to report increased sales. The increase in sales was primarily associated with off-dock, community supported fisheries, and home delivery arrangements. We collected daily Google Analytics data from a subset of community supported fisheries in North America from January 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020 (1.5 years). The data show a significant month-to-month increase in website traffic from April to June 2020 relative to the same time period in 2019 (Stoll et al. 2021). To understand more up-to-date trends, we analyzed website traffic on the Local Catch Network Seafood Finder from January 1, 2019 to March 31, 2021. Our analysis shows that the early spike in website traffic observed during the beginning of the pandemic diminished, but that traffic has remained significantly higher (Fig. 1). We plan to continue to track website traffic for the foreseeable future to better understand the long-term change in direct sales. Many members of the LCN believe that the increase in local and direct seafood sales is reflective of a long-term trend.

Figure 1. Boxplot showing normalized website traffic on the Local Catch Network Seafood Finder (January 2019 – March 2021). As reported by Stoll et al. (2021), we see a pandemic “bump” that starts in early March 2021 and aligns with when COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place. Web traffic subsequently declines, but it remains significantly higher than 2019 levels. In particular, note the difference in web traffic in January, February, and March across the 3 years. We see no statistical difference in January, February, or March of 2019 and 2020 prior to the pandemic, but 2021 is higher across all three months.

What types of innovations, pivots, or adaptations have proven to be the most impactful or important for your stakeholders or sector?  

Increase in emergency food distribution. One of the most impactful pivots in our sector during the pandemic has been a shift towards emergency food distribution. Since the beginning of the pandemic, fishing organizations across the United States have been working with the emergency food sector to distribute their catch to address issues of food insecurity. Examples are widespread and include, but are not limited to, cases in Alaska, California (and here), Massachusetts, Maine, Mississippi, Hawaii, and Florida. These activities have been largely supported by philanthropic support and, in combination, represent several million meals worth of seafood.  A shining example of one of these initiatives is the Alaskans Own Seafood Donation Program, which is housed at the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust. Alaskans Own secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding which allowed them to purchase seafood at fair prices from local fishermen and then work with local communities, tribal organizations, food pantries, and others to distribute that seafood to families impacted by COVID-19. The Seafood Donation Program expanded outside of Alaska with the help of The Wave Foundation based in Portland, Oregon. Together, Alaskans Own and the Wave were able to bring Alaska seafood to tribes and other communities in Oregon and Washington struggling with food insecurity.

Given the innovations and adaptations you’ve seen, how would you say your stakeholders and/or your sector demonstrate resilience in during the pandemic?

Small-scale seafood businesses faced a range of challenges over the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, those engaged in local and direct seafood marketing demonstrated remarkable shock-tolerance that suggests they may also contribute to the “systemic resilience” of the broader seafood economy. Drawing on interview data collected from seafood companies over the first six months of the pandemic, we identified multiple drivers and determinants of their resilience and ability to adapt their business practices during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, these fell into two categories: structural factors and response diversity. Structural factors describe the fixed or hard-to-change features of society, such as infrastructure and policy, which create vulnerabilities to impacts and path dependence as people mount their responses to change and surprise. Response diversity, on the other hand, describes the breadth of existing and new strategies that people mount in response to some challenge, which is influenced by a variety of factors at the individual- and societal-levels. For further details, please see: Stoll et al. 2021.

What data did your sector find most useful in navigating pandemic disruptions? Please share any survey findings, sales data, or other data/metrics related work that you, your partners or stakeholders conducted during the pandemic.   

LCN has drawn on a range of qualitative and quantitative data over the past year to track the status of COVID-19 on our network:

Name Description Data availability
Local Catch Network Impact Assessment Online survey Data available through Local Catch Network
Local Catch Census (in progress) Online survey to LCN members, including annual sales Data available upon request
Review of newspaper articles related to COVID-19 ArcGIS Story Map https://arcg.is/1rD9DC
Social Fishstancing Podcast In-depth interviews with LCN members https://localcatch.org/
Google Analytics Daily website traffic and Google search term data Summary data available upon request
SafeGraph Pedestrian foot traffic data at seafood businesses across the United States https://www.safegraph.com/

Are there groups or sub-sections of your sector that are currently experiencing disproportionate negative impacts from pandemic-disruptions? Are there groups or sub-sectors that face disproportionate challenges in recovering or re-establishing operations as pandemic-disruptions dissipate?  

Because LCN is made up of such a diverse cross-section of seafood businesses, this is a challenging question to address. As previously noted, those who were reliant on restaurant accounts have struggled more than those who primarily sell their catch directly to consumers. Those with limited skillsets in marketing, social media, and online marketplaces have also faced disproportionate challenges.

How have questions of equity, access, diversity and inclusion shaped your sector in the past year, and what efforts (if any) are in place moving forward? Please provide as many specific examples as you are able.  

LCN identified equity, access, and inclusion as a key focus area at our 2019 Local Seafood Summit (see summit report). We have started to foreground these issues in several ways:

  • New equity core value: LCN is a values-based network. The values were developed in 2016 by network members to help guide the direction of our work. We are currently soliciting input from our network about a new core value related to equity and inclusion. The proposed language is as follows:

The marginalization of any peoples, including those in fishing communities, is rooted in a long history of racism, exclusion and oppression. Access to catch, harvest, and culturally appropriate, healthy seafood must not be determined based on people’s race, incomes, gender, class, cultural background, and ethnicity. By lifting up business models that work for those who are most impacted by injustice, we move toward better serving the entire community. We will continually question our own practices and keep an open ear to new and familiar voices to ensure we are best serving our communities.

  • USDA accelerator: This summer, LCN will be launching a nation-wide, cohort-based training and technical assistance program (‘Scale Your Local Catch’) for existing seafood businesses designed to increase direct seafood sales. This accelerator program will leverage the collective expertise of the network, prior experience coordinating direct marketing trainings around the world, and the successful ‘Ag of the Middle’ program established by Ecotrust. A specific focus of ‘Scale Your Local Catch’ is on supporting diverse seafood operations based in or serving to low income and/or low food access areas.
  • Uplifting voices: Starting in 2020, LCN has secured a modest budget for marketing and communications that we are using to contract with a PR firm. Rather than use these resources to promote LCN directly, we are offering the PR firm’s services to members of our network who are from traditionally underrepresented and marginalized communities so that they can better tell their own stories. [We note that this is very much an experiment and represents new territory for the LCN Executive Committee, LCN members, and the PR firm we are working with].

Looking to the 2021 season, what issues are top of mind for your stakeholders or your sector? Are there areas where cross-sector technical assistance (e.g. choosing the right online platform, partnering with emergency food agencies) would be timely for your sector?

The following issues/opportunities represent key topics for LCN members:

  • Technical assistance to access federal resources, including USDA funding. There is a particular interest in better collaboration with emergency food delivery agencies/entities as described above.
  • Investments in local and regional seafood marketing to address the national seafood deficit. An estimated 65-90% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported, yet we are one of the largest seafood exporters around the world.
  • Investments in the physical and soft infrastructure necessary to support vibrant local and regional seafood distribution. To continue to support local and regional seafood systems, scale-appropriate infrastructure that facilitates direct-to-consumer sales is critical.

Development of data collection systems to ensure that seafood is recognized as a critical component of food system and supply chain resilience. At present, no national-level information is available about the number of businesses, geography, or total value of local and direct seafood marketing. This “invisibility” makes it difficult to justifying investing public and private funds in the sector and limits our ability to understand returns on investment when resources are allocated to the sector. It also makes it difficult to evaluate the impacts of system shocks on small-scale operators.


Figure 2a. Locally caught seafood being sold at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market on April 3, 2021 in San Diego, California.

Figure 2b. Locally caught seafood being sold at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market on April 3, 2021 in San Diego, California.

[1] EMT are licenses that allow fishers to temporarily transfer their fishing rights to another person during emergencies. The rise in EMT during 2020 occurred because fishers who were based in the continental United States were unable to travel to Alaska to fish during the season.

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