EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nation believes that helping readers stay informed about the impact of the coronavirus crisis is a form of public service. For that reason, this article, and all of our coronavirus coverage, is now free. Please subscribe to support our writers and staff, and stay healthy.
“A whole big system is falling apart. It’s not just the fishermen but the people who support them,” says Donna Marshall. Marshall heads up Cape Ann Fresh Catch, like a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, but for local seafood. These days her group is dropping off locally caught haddock, hake, cusk, and lobster to customers’ doorsteps. The work of turning whole fish into neat fillets is being done by laid-off workers from area restaurants, the only paying work they have right now.
Homegrown efforts to keep people in local fish can’t match the collapse of an industry; direct-to-consumer sales are a small fraction of what fishermen sell to restaurants. Still, the seaside solidarity that the crisis has brought to Gloucester matters. “You’re paying your neighbor’s mortgage,” Marshall says. “This person has a family. It’s not some faceless conglomerate.”
On the same day that the WHO deemed Covid-19 a pandemic, a bill was introduced in the US Senate to expand industrial fish farming. Known as the AQUAA Act, the measure has strong support among US farmers, eager to offload a glut of soybeans, rebranded as aquafeed, into fledgling salmon and tilapia bred in pens. Think of it as the industrial seafood supply chain: complex, convoluted, and best not viewed up close. “It’s all driving toward a high-volume, low-value global commodities market,” says Brett Tolley, a fourth-generation fisherman turned community organizer for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, a Gloucester-based group that advocates for fishers across the country.
Like all global supply chains right now, this one feels unstable and unsustainable. Most of the seafood we eat in America, even in Gloucester, the country’s oldest seaport, comes from overseas. Most of what local fishermen catch is sent elsewhere. “The models aren’t designed to feed local and regional markets,” Tolley says. Those famous fish sticks bearing the logo of a Gloucester fisherman? By the time they reach your frozen foods section, they’ve made an exhausting global journey, exported for processing, then reimported.
Nearly 500 commercial boats fished out of Gloucester a decade ago. Today, there are two dozen. This reflects both the decades-long collapse in groundfish stocks—the cod and haddock that once abounded in the cold waters off Cape Ann—and ever-more-aggressive federal measures limiting who can fish and for how much. Privatizing a natural resource has been the governing principle of fisheries management for a decade, the idea being that privatization gives people a greater stake in preservation. Fisheries have thus been carved into slices that can be bought, sold, or traded, pricing out small fishermen and rewarding deep-pocketed investors—“slipper skippers,” who don’t fish but own the boats and the rights to the catch.
“The price went to hell” even before Covid-19, says lobsterman Larry Stepanuk, who fishes between 200 and 300 lobster traps in the waters off of Rockport, Mass. Tariffs imposed by Europe and China made lobsters prohibitively expensive. Then came the collapse of the Chinese market, where lobsters are—or were—a coveted luxury among the burgeoning middle class. Lobstermen, who had a bumper fall season, now have nowhere to sell their catch. No restaurant diners tying on lobster bibs; no cruise ships, the largest purchaser of processed tails, the “surf” in surf and turf.
“To go and get ‘bugs,’” the local endearment for lobsters, “and sell them for what they can be sold for right now would net you enough to buy a six-pack or two,” Stepanuk says. He spends his days painting buoys and waiting to see if he gets what he calls “a gift” from the president.
The entire US fishing industry was promised only $300 million in the $2 trillion stimulus package. Massachusetts, which harvests more lobsters than any state besides Maine, is set to receive just over $28 million. The size of the state’s haul—the third-largest allocation behind Alaska and Washington—is partly due to the strength of the lobster industry here. But lobsterers are just one contingent in a vast workforce that depends upon the sea. “It could always just end up being a money grab,” says Mark Ring of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
If any of that money makes its way to Stepanuk, he plans to invest in maintenance—his wooden boat, the Aimee, could use a scrape and a paint. After lobstering for 50 years, Stepanuk is practiced at weathering crises; so is his extended community.
“There’s this whole thing with mutual aid in a place like Gloucester. You get a bucket of lobsters, I get cheaper rent. A grocery store gives out a gift card, basically saying, ‘Here’s some money for a couple of weeks.’ It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a huge thing, helping each other out.”
Something Is Happening Here is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, offering scenes from a pandemic—a series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends. Edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, it will appear weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.