County launches commercial fishing survey for industry hit hard by COVID-19

On Monday, Suffolk County released a Long Island Commercial Fishing Survey, which aims to help the county develop an up-to-date profile of Long Island’s commercial fishing industry. Commercial fishing was hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to County Executive Steve Bellone.

Last year, COVID-19 caused restaurants across the state to operate at limited capacity in order to protect public health, leading to a loss of business for commercial fishers.

“The information and data collected through the survey will highlight the needs of local fishermen and will guide and assist agencies in providing the resources necessary to continue to support a viable and sustainable fishing industry,” Mr. Bellone said. “The survey will differ from years prior by including targeted questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected commercial fisherman on Long Island.”

Locally, The Illusion, operated by Mark Phillips, is the only commercial fishing boat that calls Greenport its home port. His wife, Mary Bess Phillips, said the impact of COVID-19 on the fishing and restaurant industries was devastating. 

“The biggest part of the problem is that when March hit, the whole East Coast was pretty much shut down,” Ms. Phillips said in an interview Monday. “I realized that the seafood industry was an integral part of the restaurant business on the East Coast but I didn’t realize how integral. The price of fish went in the doghouse; it was hard to sell. The market dropped.”

She said her husband came home from fishing only two times last year, and he had to be quarantined for 14 days when he did, in order to comply with COVID-19 protocols. 

The survey was developed in partnership with the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning, New York Sea Grant, Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program, and the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.

“When we had to shut down last spring to beat back COVID-19 and save lives, the commercial fishing industry, like so many others, suffered,” Mr. Bellone said in a press release. “But there is good news, we are working to build back stronger than ever and this needs assessment survey will identify key points and allow us to provide the resources needed to ensure this industry thrives.”

In 2019, 361 commercial fishing establishments landed over 19 million pounds of fish valued at over $27 million, according to the county. These revenues generated an additional $47.4 million in economic activity, additional earnings of $15.4 million, and 656 additional jobs.

“The disruption caused by COVID-19 eliminated a critical customer base for Long Island’s local fishing and seafood industries, and market prices for fish dropped between 60 to 80%,” Mr. Bellone said. 

“We hope the results from the survey will demonstrate the value of our local fisheries and help us identify opportunities for economic growth within the industry,” said August Ruckdeschel, chair of the Suffolk County Food Policy Council.

“Suffolk County’s commercial fishing survey could not come at a better time to assess the needs of this heritage industry to rebuild and grow our markets even stronger than before,” said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.