Fisheries in Maryland, Virginia losing millions due to COVID-19 shutdowns

Published on
May 6, 2020

Fisheries along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia are, like many other fisheries in the country, facing an economic crisis as restaurant shutdowns cause decreases in demand.

The region’s two most iconic fisheries – blue crab and oysters – are both being hit by COVID-19-based restaurant closures that caused a rapid drop in demand. Restaurants account for 70 percent or more of the demand for the two species, with retail channels unable to make up the demand gap.

Maryland’s oyster fishermen managed to avoid some of the impacts thanks to the timing of the state’s season – which runs from 1 October to 31 March. The bulk of closures didn’t start until later in March, which meant the oyster season was cut short by just a few weeks.

“When the governor made the official announcement on 23 March that shut down restaurants, many of our customers backed out of their orders that day,” Jason Ruth, the co-owner of oyster-shucking house Harris Seafood in Grasonville, Maryland, told National Fisherman. “We could see the writing on the wall and cut the oyster season short by two weeks.”

While the fishermen avoided the brunt of the shutdown, processors and wholesalers with supply are struggling to find a market for the products.

In contrast, the crab season in the bay was just beginning. The season runs from 1 April to 15 December in Maryland, and 17 March through 30 November for Virginia. The industry there has been hit by two main issues caused by the coronavirus: No restaurant demand and a lack of seasonal help due to a reduced pool of H-2B visas.

The U.S. initially had a reduced pool of 33,000 H-2B visa workers, but added an additional 35,000 visas in response to labor shortages. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said there would be no changes to that plan, but those additional visas are likely being affected by temporary suspensions of processing the relevant forms by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.

As a result of the H-2B complications, many Maryland processors are closed, Delmarva Now reported. According to the publication, only three of nine “picking houses” in the state received any visas, and many are operating at reduced capacity.

Despite the lack of processing, live and steamed crabs are still finding a market. Johnny Graham, of Graham & Rollins Inc. – the largest crab processor in Virginia – told the publication sales of live and steamed crabs were similar to numbers seen during the 4 July holiday.

Still, fishermen are facing dockside prices 30 percent or more below normal for crabs, and the seafood industry as a whole is seeing heavy losses. The Virginia-Pilot reported that an internal memo from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission indicates that revenue losses could range from between USD 53 million to USD 68 million (EUR 49 million to EUR 62 million) across all fisheries – which includes aquaculture operations for clams and oysters. 

Photo courtesy of David Tran/Shutterstock 

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