An underappreciated, powerhouse industry
By John Pappalardo
The latest stats about the state of our fishery have just emerged from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, covering landings across the Commonwealth for 2021, built off meticulous reports the agency requires all commercial fishermen to file so by far the best snapshot we have of what’s happening out there.
It kind of blows me away.
The “ex-vessel” price is probably the most important of the economic indicators. This is the amount of money that fishermen are paid for what they land, direct return for work offshore, figuratively cash plunked on deck. This number is only the beginning as far as impact on our economy, not factoring in how the catch moves into restaurants, wholesalers and retailers, supporting many more jobs and industries, but it’s a real good baseline.
In 2021, the ex-vessel value of all fish landed in Massachusetts ports was – drumroll please -- $802 million, rounded off.
In 2020, the ex-vessel value of all fish landed in Massachusetts ports was – drumroll please -- $558 million.
A very big figure to begin with increased by another $244 million in one year, more than 44 percent.
Two fisheries continue to dominate:
Scallops accounted for 64 percent of that value in 2021, 56 percent in 2020.
Lobsters accounted for 15 percent of that value in 2021, 14 percent in 2020.
Taken together, that’s 79 percent of the 2021 total.
In both cases, the number of pounds landed from year to year wasn’t that much different; scallop was in the 450-480 million pound range, lobsters around 17 million pounds. So the big ex-vessel jump has to do with price per pound. All of us who buy fish at the market have seen big increases, especially for lobster; the piece of that going directly to the fishermen is not all of it by a long stretch, but certainly noticeable.
The suite of historic “groundfish” like cod, haddock, pollock, hake, flounder and others, once the penultimate targets for New England fishermen, have become second tier. Altogether they accounted for about $37 million in ex-vessel value in 2021, garnered off 37 million pounds. In 2020, it was $38 million made off 45 million landed pounds, so again the average value per pound is up. But remember, this is for all those species combined, though doesn’t include skate, dogfish, or monkfish, three species that our local fleet brings home in abundance.
Take home: The industry keeps shifting – as always.
The other strong individual performer is oysters. In 2021, landed value (more off the truck than the deck in this case) was $28 million on 10 million pounds. In 2020, it was $18 million off 6 million harvested pounds. That $10 million boost is explained by a strong growing year but also a rebounding market after COVID slammed the oyster world, restaurants finally re-opening and getting those half-shells on the plate.
I keep circling back to the initial, whole-industry ex-vessel figure: $802,389,629 to be exact.
By any measure that is a huge number with major rippling effects across Massachusetts. Most of that stays in the state and circulates, creating what the economists call multiplier effects. How that compares to other industries both in our state and across the country, whether that be sectors of the economy or other agricultural and food producers, is something I’m intrigued with and hope we can report, in good context, in next month’s issue.
Meanwhile, remember that this eye-popping total is what’s known as a “topline” number, meaning a gross sales report. It says nothing about the real costs of creating this value, how much of it sticks and reaches the pockets of individual captains and crew. As we all know, inflation is eating into that margin in big ways; for fishermen, fuel costs especially are making each trip a much bigger investment and gamble. So higher values do not necessarily mean higher returns.
But all the caveats and qualifiers in the world don’t change a key fact proven yet again:
The Massachusetts commercial fishing industry remains among the most important and underappreciated elements of our otherwise high-tech, higher-ed, healthcare, and tourist economy. It gets little of the play and profile of those, little comparable support in the form of programs and tax dollars. That’s generally OK; fishermen as a group don’t angle for those kinds of things, don’t expect them and prefer to standalone or apart anyway.
But it is worth noting for those times along the way, whether it’s at town meetings, the State House, or the halls of Congress, when we talk about priorities, debating where public investments can do the most good.
The numbers argue for themselves. Stand by for more intriguing detail and context next month.
John Pappalardo, CEO, The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance