Bunker or menhaden fish, seen while whale watching off Long Beach, N.Y. (Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography via Getty Images)

Virginia’s waters are unusually still this spring.

Ordinarily, May 1 is the start of the charter boat season, a day that sees convoys of boats head out from the ports of coastal Virginia for deeper waters where fish are sought by daytrippers. By then, crabbing and oystering, which usually begin in March, are in full swing. So are the commercial fisheries, many of which operate year-round. 

Not so this year. Like so many other industries, fisheries, whether commercial or recreational, have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on Thursday announced $300 million in relief funding for fisheries around the nation, Virginia’s top natural resources official says the state’s $4.5 million allocation is nowhere near enough to stem the tide of losses.

“This funding falls woefully short of even beginning to address the devastating impacts fisheries and aquaculture businesses have suffered due to COVID-19,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler in a statement. “The fishing industry in Virginia supports thousands of jobs and generates millions in revenue. The administration must release more funding to help our coastal communities and businesses.”

On the list of states and territories that will receive federal relief to help their fisheries, Virginia falls somewhere in the middle. It will take in far less than marine powerhouses Alaska and Washington, which will receive $50 million each, but more than the million-plus being sent to U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and states like Delaware. 

Still, said Chris Moore, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “it doesn’t seem like, considering the immense number of fisheries that we have, that it matches up.”

Demand drops 70 to 90 percent

As the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has spread and states have sought to contain it through restrictions on all aspects of daily life, no sector of the fishing industry has gone untouched. 

Shellfish and, to a slightly lesser extent, finfish, have experienced sharp declines as restaurant business has shrunk to a trickle. Overall, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission estimates demand has dropped 70 to 90 percent, amounting to losses of $53 to $68 million in landings. In the aquaculture industry alone, losses may be between $3.5 and $7 million every month. 

Even if a waterman (or woman) can bring in a harvest, it may not be able to be processed for sale: in both Virginia and Maryland, crabmeat processors have faced severe shortages of workers as the federal government has restricted the number of H2-A workers who can enter the country for seasonal work — never mind the difficulties of revamping picking rooms to accommodate social-distancing guidelines. 

Crabbers “have spent all this money to gear up for the spring obviously not knowing this was going to happen,” said Moore. 

Most hard hit has been the recreational fishing sector. On April 2, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission declared charter and party boat operations “non-essential businesses” and banned them until June 10, when Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order is set to expire. 

“They really shut us down,” said Capt. Ben Burbic, the operator of charter boat company Good to Go Fishing and a member of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association’s board. 

And while charter fishing may be a fun diversion from work for customers, it’s also a major economic activity in Virginia, where many coastal areas depend on the tourism it drives as well as the associated businesses it supports, from fuel and bait sellers to boat builders. In May and June alone, according to VMRC, charter and party boats take almost 18,000 trips.

“In a region where the (seafood) industry has an economic impact of $4.6 billion and supports more than 30,000 jobs, the wider ripple effects of an industry collapse will be devastating,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Federal Executive Director Jason Rano in a statement.

For Burbic, who runs a 40-foot boat out of Hampton, the immediate future looks grim. Going into 2020, he expected to conduct 100 to 125 charters during the season. Now the calculus has changed and he’s revised those figures down to a lower limit of 35, the number of trips he’d need to conduct to break even with the costs of slip rental, insurance, maintenance, fuel, bait and a host of other expenses involved in chartering.

And while new rules from the VMRC will allow charter boats to begin operating May 15 with fewer passengers than usual, he was uncertain about whether those restrictions would net sufficient proceeds to justify the costs of taking his vessel out.

“I don’t think it’s going to pick up. I really truly don’t,” he said. “People aren’t going to have the liquid cash to take their family on vacation.” 

Moore agreed: “Unfortunately, we’re probably going to see a really negative impact on that fishery through the rest of their year,” he said.

From the federal government, the money will now be disbursed to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission while Virginia officials develop a distribution plan that Commissioner Steven Bowman said would aim “to improve the resiliency of our fisheries and fishing business.”

Federal funding will be “greatly appreciated,” said Burbic, but he worried too about how it would end up being divided among the industry, pointing to the government’s controversial decision last month to give many large restaurant chains small business loans under the Paycheck Protection Program.

“I would hate to see large corporate fisheries get that money,” he said. “Those kinds of monies were earmarked for mom and pops. Well, charter boat companies are mom and pops.”