Massachusetts’ commercial fishing industry is finding new ways to stay afloat as the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered restaurants and halted seafood shipments, shaking up the normal course of business and leaving fishermen looking for customers to buy their seafood.
“We had a wholesale business and like the stock market, we were up, up, up and dependable — and then all of a sudden it went away,” said Nick Giacalone, who with his brothers owns the Fisherman’s Wharf Gloucester.
Restaurant closures amid the pandemic and the grounding of hundreds of planes that typically carry local seafood to overseas markets have decimated the demand globally and threatened to send prices crashing. It’s a sobering reality that has led many fishermen and related industries to tap an obvious but previously neglected market: Direct-to-consumer sales.
Up in Gloucester, haddock, pollack, scallops and lobsters arrive by the thousands of pounds at Giacalone’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The company entered retail sales for the first time last month as it looked to move its product and help the fishing boats it works with stay in business.
“We are adapting, we are pivoting,” said Vito Giacalone, Nick’s brother. The warehouse cuts, cleans and sells about 20 million pounds of seafood to grocery chains, restaurants and other processors annually.
The brothers say the entry into retail business has helped keep their heads above water.
On Sunday alone more than 300 people purchased seafood at fisherman’s Wharf and Vito said they’ve been processing roughly the same amount of seafood as they did before the pandemic hit. The Giacalones have so far been able to keep all 15 of their employees working.
“People are buying local and it’s keeping fishermen and industry in business,” he said.
To help, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has waived the $65 fee for the expedited seafood dealer permit, allowing commercial fishermen to sell their products directly to consumers.
“A lot of fishermen who never sold directly to the public before are doing it now,” said Steve Holler, a South Boston lobsterman who started selling live lobsters off the back of his boat, the November Gale, in Quincy’s Houghs Neck neighborhood a few years ago.
Bay State fishermen depend on restaurants and overseas sales to buy up as much as 85% of their product, Holler said. In 2017, 68% of all seafood was purchased at restaurants, federal statistics show.
With those markets closed, Holler — who is also a member of the Massachusetts Fisherman’s Partnership — said the entire fishing industry has scrambled to find ways to get its product into the hands of customers. Selling directly to the public can help cover costs, Holler said.
From fishermen to crew to processors to restaurants, the seafood industry supports 1.7 million jobs and generate $200 billion in annual sales nationwide. Massachusetts is the second-highest earning fishery, bringing in $647.2 million in 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It sounds counterintuitive, but until now, very little seafood bought by consumers at local supermarkets was actually harvested locally.
Nick Giacalone said direct-to-consumer sales could be a “silver lining” for an industry that has been decimated in recent years by the rising cost of doing business and the pinch of federal regulations limiting hauls.
“This could be the renaissance we need,” Nick Giacalone said.