Long-line caught halibut await unloading in Petersburg. (Angela Denning/KFSK)

A federal agency has put some dollar amounts to the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on commercial and charter fishing industries nationwide in the first part of last year.

NOAA Fisheries Friday, January 15 released a report on the economic impact on the seafood catch and recreational fishing nationwide and here in Alaska through last summer.

NOAA Fisheries deputy assistant administrator for operations Paul Doremus called the report a snapshot of an industry in transition.

“We’re trying to account in great detail with the data and information in this report on the bearing of COVID-19 on the sector as a whole and provide this in a way that can help businesses and communities understand what has happened, where the losses have been concentrated and to inform long-term recovery and resilient strategies,” Doremus said during a conference call with reporters.

Nationwide the commercial fishing industry started off 2020 with increases in revenue from seafood sales. But as the pandemic hit in March, that income dropped off 19 percent compared to the most recent five-year average. Those declines swelled to 45 percent by July.

Port closures and shipping restrictions meant a big drop in seafood exports. Large gains in grocery store sales were not enough to offset big losses from closed restaurants around the U.S., the report says. More than 70 percent of seafood is eaten in restaurants and that meant lost markets, especially for high-value fresh seafood.

NOAA Fisheries economist and one of the report’s authors Rita Curtis said frozen and shelf-stable product fared better but the revenue losses were seen across many types of seafood.

“You know with these kind of declines, and successively getting worse and worse, going from March, April, May, June, July, it was really quite surprising how badly the situation was deteriorating in the spring,” Curtis said.

With a drop in harvests for many species and lower prices paid for that seafood, the commercial industry in Alaska saw a revenue drop nearly half a billion dollars during that time from the year before (down $436 million dollars, from 1.48 billion in 2019 to $1.04 billion in 2020). That’s a loss of 35 percent from the recent five-year average. The biggest drops were in fisheries for herring, salmon, halibut, Pacific cod and flatfish.

There were a couple of commercial catches that bucked the trend. The report highlights indications of strong demand for crab species from Alaska compared to the year before and the recent average. Some of the most lucrative crab seasons were wrapped up before the full impact of the pandemic hit. Harvests and revenue from Alaska rockfish also beat the recent averages.

Deputy assistant administrator Doremus sounded a more positive note for the upcoming year, because of the rollout of vaccines and changes to how the industry does business.

“I don’t think anybody expects a reversion to life before COVID,” Doremus said. “Significant adjustments are being made in industry, in product form, product diversification, changing distribution channels, a variety of types of adjustments to how supply chains are being managed, all much needed changes, all changes that will help strengthen industry over time.”

The report also highlighted big revenue declines for the charter sport fishing fleet. A poll of businesses in May showed a 50 percent drop in bookings from the year before, in the first part of that season.