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Louisiana Sea Grant COVID-19 Response

Louisiana Sea Grant (LSG) is no stranger to natural and manmade disasters. Since 2005, the program has responded to half a dozen hurricanes, two floods, the nation’s largest oil spill, fisheries disaster declarations and now a global pandemic. The following text highlights how Louisiana Sea Grant has been responding to the challenges caused by COVID-19.

COVID-19 illustration

Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

COVID-19 Resources Webpage

In order to aid our stakeholders during the health emergency, LSG created and compiled a number of resources and made them available online. Information spans ten topics and is shared when there is content.

Topics:

Impact Assessment and Assistance

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 virus had an impact on Louisiana’s commercial and recreational fishery industries. To measure the extent of the impact, Louisiana Sea Grant established a team to compile historic data; survey fishermen, docks and processors; and then assemble the mass of information into digestible content.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • Conducting impact assessment surveys based on revenue and employment for charter, marina, dealer and processor sectors of Louisiana seafood industry. Surveys are done quarterly throughout 2020 and compared to baseline years.
  • Collecting monthly baseline data for shrimp, crab, oyster, freshwater catfish, wild crawfish and marine finfish – including black drum, groupers, snappers and tunas. This information provides a comparison for 2020 trip ticket harvest data once that information is available. This will help quantify the impact on the harvesting sector.
  • Compiling information about Louisiana landings compared to Gulf-wide shrimp landings, shrimp processing, dockside value and imports to help inform U.S. Rep. Garret Graves’ office about USDA shrimp purchase options.
  • Establishing internal FAQs to help Sea Grant and Extension personnel field questions concerning SBA assistance, unemployment, paid sick and family leave, FEMA, IRS programs and processing food safety.
  • Creating and maintaining the Fisheries Extension Network (FEN) COVID-19 website (Louisiana Sea Grant fisheries specialist Julie Lively serves as FEN chair). Additional work has including organizing and leading update phone calls for the Sea Grant network.

Oyster Fishery

Already reeling from the 2019 freshwater floods, the oyster industry has further suffered from restaurant closures and reduced demand from COVID-19.  Bulk sales and orders quickly stopped, processors had truckloads of oysters retuned, processors and dealers became idle (along with contract vessels), shuckers and plant workers were furloughed. At the height of the quarantine, processors stated that sales were down as much as 98 percent from normal for this time of year; some processors had no sales. Louisiana annually produces 35 to 50 percent of the total national supply, most from private leases.

This private sector focus has encouraged entrepreneurship and development of a fledgling off-bottom Alternative Oyster Culture (AOC) industry. This is an area that Louisiana Sea Grant has been actively involved in as AOC fishers need a steady supply of hatchery-reared larvae or seed oysters. However, AOC oyster farmers also lack steady sales of their ready-for-market oysters, indicating that their sales are down more than 90 percent.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • For oyster fishers, processors and dealers to change their target consumer from wholesale to selling directly to the public, there is a need to assure product safety. To help the industry move their product properly and safely, Sea Grant is developing fact sheets on the following topics:
  • Public’s Guide to Buying Live Oysters
  • AOC Guidelines for Selling to Public
  • Harvester’s Guide to Selling Live Oysters Direct to the Public
  • Processors Guide to Selling to the Public
  • As AOC is fairly new, it is vulnerable and not likely to weather extended periods without income. This is compounded by the fact that AOC farms have to continue working and maintaining animals and gear regardless of sales. Therefore, the Voison Oyster Hatchery is continuing to provide seed for crops that will be harvested in the fall/winter 2020 and spring 2021. The hatchery is also coordinating with other Gulf hatcheries to ensure seed demands are met for the region. Additionally, LSG has been sharing information with AOC farmers in Louisiana and the Gulf region on public access resources around the country being made available for AOC businesses to better manage and weather the pandemic.
  • The Louisiana Sea Grant Oyster Response Team is continuing conversations with stakeholders, including the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
  • A new fisheries processing facility, Tommy’s Seafood Inc., has been established at the Port of Cameron near Calcasieu Lake. The team will continue to work with Tommy’s Seafood and others to promote the Calcasieu oyster fishery, a tonging-only harvesting area.

Shrimp and Crab Fisheries

Seafood harvesters and processors faced many challenges during the pandemic shutdown phase of the COVID-19. These challenges ranged from social distancing and maintaining safe work environments to large reductions in demand and workforce availability. Some of the response actions by LSG Marine Extension Program (MEP) agents and specialists included increased contact and outreach measures to first understand the varying needs and then identify and disseminate relevant relief measures.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • Providing culturally appropriate social distancing posters for the shrimp, crab and other processor industries in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
  • Assisting fishermen in understanding the different financial assistance programs available in the CARES Act and how to apply.
  • Assisting self-employed fishermen and independent seafood contract workers and fishermen in understanding the application process and required qualifications of state and federal COVID unemployment benefits.
  • Continuing assistance to the seafood processing industry as they document and implement COVID safety recommendations and procedures to ensure the delivery of safe, sustainable seafood.
  • Providing the seafood industry with guidance on protocol and procedures on how to deal with employees returning to work after caring for someone who has COVID.
  • Giving guidance to the consumer base on the status and nuances of the post-COVID shrimp and crab situation.
  • Continuing work with local government agencies to maintain a vital connection and ensure the delivery of accurate information.
  • Maintaining outreach efforts that connect the Louisiana seafood industry to science-based research that helps the industry adopt innovative practices to their businesses during COVID

Direct Marketing and Pop-Up Markets

As restaurants began closing due to COVID-19, normal supply chains for Gulf seafood began breaking. Louisiana fishermen — already living catch to catch — suddenly didn’t know where to bring their product . The freezers at the large seafood processing companies were filling or full, and labor became unreliable. Direct-to-consumer sales, spearheaded by ongoing Louisiana Sea Grant efforts, aided commercial fishermen in maintaining a revenue stream during the crisis.

Established in 2011, Louisiana Direct Seafood (LDS) has helped commercial fishermen sell a portion of their catch directly to the public at premium prices to offset sinking dockside prices. During COVID- 19, many commercial fishermen successfully turned to LDS as well as the Louisiana Direct Seafood Shop to market their catch to consumers.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • Online sales at the Louisiana Direct Seafood Shop have seen a significant increase, doubling from March to April.
  • Louisiana Sea Grant Extension personnel also have helped commercial fishermen move tens-of-thousands of pounds of red snapper and other seafood through pop-up markets from Lafayette to the Greater New Orleans area. This has provided a much-needed place for fishermen to move existing product, and even allowed some to sell out entirely.

Sea Grant COVID-19 Fisheries Efforts in the News

Opening Louisiana Direct Seafood to Wholesalers

The individual fishermen are not the only seafood industry members that have been impacted by COVID-19. Seafood wholesalers in Louisiana have also seen their supply chains become disrupted and have been looking for alternative methods to market their products.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • In an added effort to improve the economic sustainability of the state’s seafood industry, Louisiana Direct Seafood (LDS) added a wholesale directory to its website (com/wholesale). This site has no cost to participate and provides new markets and opportunities to licensed wholesaler and dealer businesses selling Louisiana seafood.
  • The wholesale directory is the first step in a larger campaign to promote Louisiana seafood to institutional buyers such as chefs, restaurants, specialty food markets and independent grocery chains. This campaign will use outreach methods like social media, partnerships with specialty food influencers and networking with state agencies to further develop alternative marketing options for Louisiana seafood.

Focusing $100,000 on Alternative Seafood Marketing

In addition to supporting state industries with outreach materials, new consumer avenues and liaison expertise, Louisiana Sea Grant is dedicating $100,000 toward enhancing the state’s alternative seafood marketing efforts. This funding, provided by the National Sea Grant College Program for COVID-19 response, is to boost previous direct marketing investments in a statewide effort. This builds on efforts begun in 2010, when LSG aided the Port of Delcambre is creating Louisiana Seafood Direct (www.louisianadirectseafood.com).

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • The creation and subsequent expansion of Delcambre Direct Seafood, an online portal where fishers connect with consumers to sell shrimp and other seafood.
  • This program has since expanded to include Cameron, Terrebonne-Lafourche and the New Orleans area
  • New funds are dedicated to improvements to the Louisiana Direct Seafood (LDS) website, making the portal more user-friendly to consumers, providing seafood wholesalers an avenue to market their goods and automating a messaging system to promote fresh product availability.
  • Another aspect of the project will include “chef-inars” where non-professional chefs prepare dishes using products available on LDS, cooking videos with professional chefs, and consumer research to determine potential markets for LDS’ e-commerce seafood products.

 Freshwater Fisheries (Crawfish, Finfish and Alligator)

Crawfish and alligators are important industries in Louisiana and have also been negatively impacted by the global pandemic. The spring is peak harvest time for crawfish farmers, but restaurant closures limited where their product could go. The alligator industry relies on global connections and trade, which were also slowed by COVID-19. Sea Grant personnel stepped up to the challenge of collecting data on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected those industries.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • Marine Extension personnel are assisting LSU AgCenter economist Kurt Guidry in developing a survey of crawfish farmers to assess the impact of COVID-19 social distancing on the price and harvesting efforts of crawfish. The results of this study were supplied to the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and used to appeal to USDA for assistance.
  • MEP provided information on the Paycheck Protection Program and ELAP (Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees and Farm-raised Fish) to alligator farmers.

Business and Consumer Safety

Retail outlets, docks, seafood processors and commercial fishing boats are all businesses that remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Safe practices to minimize the transmission of the virus on these premises are crucial for the successful control of the spread of the disease.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

Legal Issues and Government Policy

The Louisiana Sea Grant Law & Policy Program (LSGLPP) stepped-in to aid stakeholders and Extension personnel in the wake of COVID-19. Their efforts extended across all of the Sea Grant response teams.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • LSGLPP intern George Day analyzed available federal assistance to the seafood industry and developed a fact sheet on the topic.
  • LSGLPP worked with Extension agent Thu Bui to lay the groundwork for a proposed USDA purchase of frozen shrimp from Louisiana shrimp processors. Together they modified the “FEDERAL PURCHASE PROGRAM SPECIFICATION (FPPS) FOR WILD SHRIMP, FROZEN” to include the inventory most available from Louisiana shrimp processors; drafted a letter to the USDA explaining Louisiana’s needs and how the federal purchase program can best meet those needs; and reviewed letters from other organizations to the federal government regarding the shrimp purchase to assist in developing standard language for future correspondence.
  • LSGLPP worked with Bui to analyze the federal and state unemployment assistance available to workers in the seafood industry and developed materials to share this information.
  • Provided information to the Louisiana Sea Grant Communications staff on legal issues related to providing recordings of children’s books through a “virtual story time.”

Education at Home Resources

Stay-at-home orders issued in mid-March closed schools and childcare facilities across the state for the duration of the school year. Parents scrambled to find age-appropriate online resources to help them continue their children’s education. Louisiana Sea Grant not only curated at-home educational resources available across the country and shared those resources online and through social media, but also created new lessons and educational activities.

The focus of LSG’s efforts on this endeavor have been locally relevant lessons aligned with state standards that appeal to Louisiana teachers and parents. The science lessons feature events and activities that help explain phenomena in the state’s coastal zone. Additionally, LSG has partnered with Louisiana children’s authors to provide recorded story times with reading comprehension guides. All of these efforts have helped remotely share Louisiana-centric educational content with the state’s K-12 youth audience.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

Personal Wellness

In the decade prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Louisiana was hit with multiple, large-scale natural and man-made disasters. Numerous studies demonstrate the cumulative and long-lasting impacts of these disasters to all facets of personal wellness of the state’s coastal residents and communities. Experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic may create public health issues similar to previous disasters – even in residents who do not contract the disease.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

Seafood and Culinary Tourism

Louisiana Sea Grant is planning a series of three to five short videos (two minutes each) focused on Louisiana seafood restaurants. The goals of these videos are to increase seafood consumption, increase awareness of how to use Louisiana seafood, promote Louisiana’s seafood and seafood restaurants, promote culinary tourism within the state and bolster Lt. Governor, Legislature and Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s efforts to promote in-state tourism. LSG plans to target consumers by sharing the videos through Louisiana Fisheries Forward, Louisiana Sea Grant, LSU AgCenter, Louisiana convention and visitors’ bureaus and social media.

Sea Grant Team Efforts Include:

  • A series of seafood-centric videos that highlight Louisiana products. Each video will include an educational component, use storytelling to engage the audience and feature both fishermen and chefs with unique perspectives. Other goals include:
    • Featuring fishermen participating in LSG’s direct marketing program, to reinforce the concept of knowing who ‘grows’ your food.
    • Demonstrating preparation and cooking techniques (e.g., how to filet, how to prepare/cook seafood) from culinary industry experts.
    • Serve as a promotional product for Louisiana seafood and seafood restaurants.