COLUMN | Fishing in the time of the pandemic [Fishing for a Living]

Cannery workers, like these at a Philippine sardine plant, typically work shoulder to shoulder. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

There was a time, decades ago, when I thought that a cannery or reduction plant was just something that I had to walk past to get down to the boat that I crewed on. Of course, that was a young fisherman’s conceit. The shore-side facilities that took our fish were essential to the industry. They were our market and they made my season settlement possible.

Today, in the time of the Covid-19, a lot of fishermen will be directly affected by the shore-side processors. From Thai tuna canneries to Alaskan salmon canneries, these factories rely extensively on temporary foreign workers. And so, just in decades past, the fisherman’s income is dependent on a good supply of foreign workers.

In the spring of 2020, countries from South East Asia to Europe and North America were imposing various forms of quarantine on people who had crossed borders. In most cases, foreign crews were not allowed to leave ships when in port.

In the spring of 2020, the maritime world was turning from regular to new practices. In most countries, these were evolving by the week. In Alaska, the processors said that their temporary workers would be housed in separate accommodations. In Thailand, this was already the practice. But, at the same time, governments were saying no to large gatherings.

In Canada, the first week of May saw both beef and chicken packing plants being closed due to outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. Two beef plants in Alberta were closed prompting McDonalds Canada to shift to foreign suppliers. In British Columbia, large and small chicken packing plants had outbreaks of the virus, possibly carried by a government safety inspector who tested positive as a carrier.

Such news was, obviously, making processors nervous. With the Alaskan and Canadian salmon seasons just weeks away, it was too late for a dramatic shift in practices. Employers and workers would just have to do their best to maintain careful hand washing, clean up, and distancing. Time will tell for this season.

Meanwhile in the Mahachai area of Thailand, thousands of seafood workers continued to go to work each day. The lines in a tuna or shrimp processing factory, are a combination of automated machines and detailed hand work. For the hand work, people stand close to each other, often on assembly lines.

The automated machines are set to match the production rates of the worker lines. Years of buyer inspections and certification audits have resulted in very strict cleanliness protocols. Workers wade several stops through a sterilisation bath in boots reserved for factory use only. They wash their hands under taps that can be turned on and off with the knee. They wear hair nets, hats, and masks.

Small coastal fishing communities, like Naknek Alaska, may not welcome a large influx of temporary foreign workers. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

In Alaska, due to the short seasons and itinerant nature of the workers, standards tend to be less stringent. Here too, efforts are maintained to stop any cross contamination. But if the processing is done in plants that have just been opened for a few weeks or, in some cases onboard floating processors. There will be real concerns regarding the Covid-19.

Beyond this 2020 season, it may be required to recognise a “new normal”. The shape of this is anybody’s guess. Will there be fewer foreign workers and a great dependence on domestic workers? Will they need higher pay and more expensive benefits? Will more of catches in some species be handled by smaller plants with fewer people allowing more distance? Will the pace of the automated machines be slowed to match a more thinly spread out work force? Will filleting and other processing of frozen seafood products be further automated?

Processing represents huge challenges, but those of fishing boats will be even greater. The crews of deep-sea ships are not welcome in large ports. Smaller vessels are finding that isolated coastal fishing communities, practicing Covid lockdown, are not happy about crews from visiting fishing vessels coming ashore. A friend of mine sailed from Seattle to Alaska in May as captain of a tug with a five-man crew. He would be arriving in Naknak, the port for most of Bristol Bay, over 14 days after leaving Seattle. “My crew and I will be staying aboard,” he explained, “The community doesn’t want them and, if they did get infected, my vessel would be in quarantine and unable to work.”

In a variation on the Covid-effect, an American tuna fisherman who regularly flies his two-man crew in from Fiji, had to forgo the season when they couldn’t get out of Fiji or land in the US. Many vessel owners in developed nations have relied on crews from less affluent nations.

Left and far right: In the future we may see more small localised operations like these women picking crab meat in Thailand. Middle: Most fish processing facilities have stringent sanitation set controls like this factory in Mahachai, Thailand. Will it be enough in the time of Covid-19? Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

If the travel restrictions continue, it will favour more local fisheries with localised small enterprise processing. We may see an increase in more labour intensive traditional methods of preserving the catch. Japan’s legendary staple food katsuobushi (smoked skipjack tuna) could enjoy a resurgence. Norway’s salt and wind-dried cod may begin taking a larger share of the catch. Such products will be more costly and most often sold closer to the fishing communities that caught them. Will it be a back to the future?

On the other hand, if processing facilities are obliged to employ fewer workers to assure social distancing, we may see even more complete automation of the processing line. Fewer workers would likely require more technological training and expect higher pay. The canning industry is less that 150 years old, and in many fisheries, much less than that. Older traditional technologies may have a place in the future of fisheries and of processing. At the same time, newer technologies, such as freezing and irradiation, are also options for the future.

Today, in the time of Covid-19, the shore-side processors will directly affect a lot of fishermen. Just as in decades past, the fisherman’s income is dependent on a good supply of fish factory workers. As nations shut down borders or require mandatory quarantines, a future that is just more of the past, is in question.

Will the fishing industry undergo long-term fundamental changes or, when we are past this pandemic, will it all return to business as usual? I would like to hear of your experiences with the industry in this time of Covid-19.

Contact me: [email protected]

More news, opinion and vessel reviews in this month’s Fishing and Aquaculture Week.

Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.