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Commercial Fishing During A Pandemic

In California, a lot of people whose jobs have been deemed essential during the shelter-in-place work in food, including commercial fishers. The industry is tough even in the best of times. Now, restaurant closures and social distancing have made fishing for a living more complex — and child care plays a role too. In this installment of The Essentials, we meet a commercial fisher and father.

My name’s Jake Bunch and I’m a commercial fisherman based out of Half Moon Bay California.

Jake started fishing in 2012. He fishes for king salmon, Dungeness crab, and sablefish, or black cod. 

The work is still the same. Yeah, fishing’s fishing. You know, that hasn't been affected really. What has been affected is what happens when we come back into the harbor and tie the boat up and need to sell our fish.

Jake says he hasn’t been fishing anywhere near as much as he usually would this time of year. With shelter-in-place and other coronavirus related restrictions there just haven’t been enough buyers and reliable markets to make it worth it. Before COVID, about 75% of commercially fished salmon in California went to restaurants. Now, that market has mostly dried up. 

The last thing a fisherman wants to do is go out and catch 5,000 pounds of product and only be able to sell 2,500 of it. We need to know that our fish are sold before we even catch them.

Before COVID-19, he sold his fish in both wholesale and retail markets. Wholesale goes to restaurants or to a fishmonger, and retail goes directly to the consumer. For Jake, retail sales before covid mostly happened at the pier in Half Moon Bay where he docks his boat.

That's been curtailed a bit since March, they shut down the pier, which didn't allow people to access the boats.

When he has been able to fish, he’s been having trouble finding buyers. The wholesaler he usually sold to before March was only able to take about forty percent what they usually did. So Jake has had to adjust.

I put an ad on Nextdoor in my neighborhood. And I put a thing on Facebook. And I said, 'Hey, I just went out fishing. I've got some of these beautiful fresh fish.'

And people came and bought them. But the logistics of the business side of fishing are complicated. 

Commercial fishing, you know, a lot of people sort of romanticize it, you know, because of what you see in movies and all that and, and there is a romantic aspect to it. And it's a beautiful way to make your living. But it's more work than I ever imagined. So there's a lot of variables that are completely out of our control that we just have to, you know, just live with.

When Jake started fishing commercially he had a lot of experience on smaller boats. His first time on the new 40-foot commercial one? He says he was.

Absolutely scared shitless. There's a lot to learn. Just like with anything that you've never done before the first couple times doing it are terribly scary. You think everything's gonna go wrong and eventually you realize that things do go wrong, but not as frequently as you think they're going to happen.

And Jake’s had a steep learning curve, juggling a fishing career along with a family during COVID. Jake has two kids, ages six and eight. And like many parents right now, he’s had to choose between working and caring for his kids. During the first week of March, the state announced wide-spread school closures. Jake’s wife is a nurse practitioner at a hospital in San Mateo. Since she’s a salaried employee with benefits, they chose to have her continue to work while he stayed home with the kids. 

At first it was a month, 'Okay, we can deal with that.' And then it became, 'Okay, there's no school until the fall.'

During the summer, he usually fishes up to six days a week. But because he’s needed to care for his kids he hasn’t been able to go out as much. He’s done a few trips, but nowhere near his normal schedule. This combined with the changing market for distribution of product has fundamentally changed how Jake fishes. 

I go out with the intention of catching half the fish now. Which means I buy less bait. The crew makes less money. You know, I am saving a little bit because I'm not spending more on fuel and on bait and on the typical expenses I have. But I'm also making half of what my business is used to generating.

Later this month, his kids are going to be able to go to summer camps, which are opening up. That means Jake will be fishing full time again. Because of suppressed wholesale fish prices, he’ll mostly be selling to socially-distanced buyers at the pier in Half Moon Bay.

Crosscurrents @WORK
Originally from the East Bay, Vivian began working in radio at KZSC in Santa Cruz. After KZSC she hosted a show at New York radio station Radio Free Brooklyn, covering artists and art local to NYC. As a KALW intern, she works on news and stories local the Bay Area. Outside of the radio station, she loves to visit galleries and museums and go on hikes.