BARNEGAT LIGHT — With restaurants only permitted to offer takeout and delivery, and many specialty seafood markets offering limited products or temporarily closing amid the COVID-19 outbreak, commercial fishermen are scaling back operations, too, and they’re feeling the impact.
“It’s scary what’s out there, it really is,” said Ernie Panacek, 69, general manager of Viking Village, a commercial seafood producer in the borough.
“The money that we get comes from those people going out to dinner and going to retail,” he said. “It’s going to be a hardship for a while. No one is going to flip a switch and have it go away immediately. We’re going to feel this for a long time.”
Panacek, who is also president of the Garden State Seafood Association, said most of his seafood is distributed to restaurants and markets through a wholesaler.
He said that while distribution to restaurants has taken a hit, retail sales remain steady.
“Prices are slipping, but that’s expected,” he said. “But we’re still in business and we’re still producing product.”
Viking Village brings in a variety of seafood such as scallops, golden tilefish and spiny dogfish, and sells locally and across the country.
Scallop season officially started Wednesday, Panacek said. While he couldn’t put a dollar amount on how much scallops cost per pound, he said the cost has decreased about 25% since the outbreak began.
“But I know fish over the last couple of weeks have taken a tough hit,” he said. “Flounder production and golden tile production, they’re big restaurant items and their prices are down 50%, 60%, 70% than what they normally should be.”
“Demand is very limited,” he added. “We’re all in turmoil, it’s very stressful. This is uncharted territory, and we’ll take it one day at a time.”
Panacek said to avoid wasting product, a limited number or fishermen and boats are being sent out on trips. A typical fishing trip lasts 10 days at sea. Those trips have been scaled back to three days.
“But we can spread it out,” he said. “We don’t have to catch them right away. We can wait to catch them a little bit later, which will probably make us a lot busier in the summer.”
Between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of scallops are brought back on the shorter trips. Typically, about 18,000 pounds are brought in from the 10-day trips.
Kirk Larson, mayor of Barnegat Light and owner of commercial fishing company Lindsay L Inc., had a scallop boat dock with product Tuesday morning at Viking Village.
Not only are trips shorter, but fewer boats are going out as well.
“We should be unloading 50,000 to 60,000 pounds a week,” he said. “But we cut back on poundage because of the market.”
Since mid-March, he’s seen a 20% price drop for scallops. According to the Fisheries Survival Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based fishing advocacy group, one pound of scallops retails anywhere from $18 to $22, depending on location.
“The market’s not really good, and there’s a limited supply of cash,” Larson said. “The demand isn’t there, so you’re going to see a price crunch.”
While there is plenty of work out there, commercial fishermen need to be able to sell the product, and they’ll definitely feel the effects of the market sinking due to the virus.
“These guys want to make a living, but they can’t make a living unless they’re selling scallops,” Larson said. “Everybody is in the same boat. If they have places to sell them, they’ll be glad to do it.”
But while the unknown of the market demand weighs heavily on the fishermen, one reassuring factor is that there are still plenty of fish in the sea.
“There are plenty of scallops out there,” Larson said. “We’re hoping for a good summer.”