US Northeast groundfish market in flux due to pandemic, labor shortages

Published on
September 6, 2021
Last year, the groundfish market in the U.S. Northeast was off by as much as 65 percent compared to 2019, but the situation is improving.

In 2019, the U.S. state of Maine’s total commercial groundfish landings were valued around USD 4 million (EUR 3.4 million). In 2020, fleets in Maine landed just 58,730 pounds of cod, averaging USD 2.55 (EUR 2.16) per pound at the dock for a total value of USD 149,844 (EUR 126,926), whereas 15.2 million pounds had been landed a decade before.

A 2021 NOAA status update reported that in New England, 13 commercial species are currently considered “overfished,” including Atlantic cod (considered collapsed), yellowtail flounder, Atlantic halibut, winter flounder, and Atlantic herring.

“One problem is that there are so many dogfish out there, and they’re having trouble getting groundfish, over the whole Eastern seaboard,” George Parr, a longtime fishmonger at Upstream Trucking in Portland, Maine, said. Parr said in recent years, dogfish have been showing up earlier and earlier in the Gulf of Maine and while dogfish rarely prey on Atlantic cod, studies have looked into whether dogfish populations may be limiting cod through competition or predation.

“For every 100 pounds of [other] fish they bring in, they bring in 500 pounds of dogfish,” Parr said. “They get USD 0.10 [EUR 0.08] a pound for it.”

At the Portland Fish Exchange in Portland, Maine, large haddock was USD 2.26 (EUR 2.17) per pound, while pollock was averaging USD 1.69 (EUR 1.43) for small-sized fish, USD 2.54 (EUR 2.15) for medium-sized fish, and USD 2.66 (EUR 2.25) for large-sized fish in early July.

“But right now, large pollock is getting around USD 3.00 [EUR 2.54] for whole fish,” Parr said. “Twenty years ago, you’d be lucky to get USD 0.40 [EUR 2.54] per pound.” Early July average auction prices for cod were USD 3.01 (EUR 2.55) for market-size specimens and USD 5.10 (EUR 4.32) for large fish.

“Cod has been getting less than pollock lately,” Parr said. “Occasionally, cod is USD 2.35 [EUR 1.99] a pound. And there is not always much on the auction. A lot of boats don’t come here anymore. It’s nothing compared to what it used to be.”

Last year, groundfish at the auction was off by as much as 65 percent compared to 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Parr said he has been selling a lot of hake and pollock lately.

“My customers want good, cheap fish,” he said. “But that boat sailed.”

In U.S. markets, cod from Iceland is not uncommon.

“That’s what keeps the cod market from going bonkers,” Parr said. “There’s so much from Iceland.”

Anecdotal reports suggest Newfoundland and Iceland may be having a banner cod year, possibly because of cooler water temperatures.

Rick Speed, vice president of sales and marketing at Blue Harvest, a New Bedford, Massachusetts-based company that operates a fleet of groundfish boats, said in the U.S. Northeast, haddock seems to be down in volume this year.

“We don’t know why,” Speed said. “We’ll wait to see what the surveys say about what’s taking place.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic was a difficult period for the region’s fishing sector, recent federal programs have helped buoy the groundfish industry, according to Speed. A U.S. Department of Agriculture food-buying program has helped through massive purchases of pollock, redfish, and Atlantic haddock as part of a coordinated effort to supply U.S. food banks.

“Last year, USD 20 million [EUR 16.9 million] was allocated by the USDA in a great program for the processors and stakeholders – and for the folks visiting food pantries,” Speed said. “There seems to be an ongoing demand for it, and it’s a big success.”

But skyrocketing freight rates and difficulty in finding labor are worrying Speed and Blue Harvest.

“It’s not having a high impact on groundfish, but ultimately it might translate into higher costs,” Speed said. “If the costs of overseas production are more in balance with U.S. production, U.S. users will lean towards U.S. products. That means we’ve seen great demand for groundfish, but we can’t keep up.”

Speed said a positive is that redfish markets, which historically have had limited distribution, have picked up considerably. Pilot efforts aimed at expanding redfish into the fish and chips market are underway, according to Speed.

“When you’re developing a fishery like we are, it’s promising. The biggest thing for us right now is we’ve had to get more vessels to process our quota. Redfish are an underutilized species, and we have a big quota,” Speed said. “Overall, we see pretty good demand for groundfish. We haven’t put as much emphasis on pollock as on redfish.”

A significant dynamic shift that has improved the fortunes of the redfish market is the shift amongst U.S. consumers to purchasing more seafood at retail, Speed said.

“I think there is some residual that came as a result of that,” Speed said. “A lot of groceries were keeping their regular products, but it opened up the door to other species as well. I think it will be positive for everyone.”

At Bergie’s Seafood in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the focus is on flatfish such as flounder, dabs, and grey sole. A few months back, however, haddock was coming in on fleets but then it suddenly became scarce, according to Bergie’s General Manager Phil Mello.

“Maybe it’s the water temperature. It had been fairly steady until about a month ago,” he said.

Grey sole is up and down, hit or miss, and cod remains scarce, Mello said.

“Boats don’t bring in cod much. It’s a choke species,” he said. “Right now, we’re in a bit of a lull, as some boats tie up for a couple of months to go on vacation. Since many fishermen in this area are Portuguese, some have gone back to Portugal for visits, while other boats have started projects like redoing engines.”

Because Bergie’s supplies distributors that supply restaurants, COVID-19 was a hard hit to the company, but things are slowly getting better, though the nationwide labor shortage is becoming an issue, Mello said.

“One packager we use is seven to eight weeks out. The problem now is, not everyone has enough help,” Mello said. “We supply a large New Jersey chain, and he doesn’t have the help to pick up his freight, his fish.”

Reporting by Caroline Losneck

Photo courtesy of Portland Fish Exchange

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