Scenes From a Pandemic: 8

25 05 2020

by Jennifer C. Berkshire

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

Gloucester Harbor (photo: Hallie Baker)

Something’s Happening Here

Gloucester, Mass. 

On a recent locked-down day, cars snaked nose-to-tail through downtown. The destination: a seafood “shop,” popped up on a local commercial fishing wharf. For those who made it in time, $15 bought a pound of scallops, or two pounds of haddock, fresh caught, and delivered in vacuum-sealed bags to the car window, exact change please. For the city’s hard-hit fisher folk, here was a rare bit of good news. The pandemic’s shuttering of restaurants has left those who fish, scallop, clam, and lobster for a living without a major market. Boats are docked, crewmembers let go, pain rippling through a web of marine-related businesses. 

“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 program, or CSA, 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. 

Home-grown 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 global 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. 

Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, with bird (photo: Jeri Williams, Yankee magazine)

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 of 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.

Lobstermen at the Inner Harbor (photo: Hallie Baker)

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.”

Jennifer C. Berkshire lives in Gloucester and hosts the education podcast “Have You Heard.” Her book, with co-author Jack Schneider, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, will be published by New Press in December. She was one of Kopkind’s inaugural campers, in 1999, and has been an adviser and occasional guest to the project ever since.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on thenation.com on May 20, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Radio Short From New Zealand

Maria Margaronis writes from London:

Here’s another radio piece in the series I made about women sewing masks around the world for BBC Woman’s Hour. I wish I could meet Sara Fitzell—tattooist, make-up artist, youth facilitator, mother. She’s Maori, from Lake Rotoiti (full name Te Roto-whaiti-i-kite-ai-a-Ihenga-i-Ariki-ai-a Kahumatamomoe), and she lives in the town of Rotorua, in a volcanic caldera on New Zealand’s North Island. She’s made more than 500 free masks for carers and others who need them, and she also sells them from a basket by her front gate. She chose the music track that accompanies her voice: Maggie Lindemann’s “Pretty Girl.” 



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