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The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to purchase domestic seafood products, like the pink shrimp pictured here, for use in its food assistance programs. (Courtesy photo)

The seafood industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been helping alleviate its struggles by purchasing millions of dollars worth of seafood products to distribute, with the majority of its most recent purchase expected to come from Oregon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, along with Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Peter DeFazio and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, announced Oct. 1 that the USDA will purchase $16.5 million in whiting and rockfish fillets, as well as salad shrimp, through its commodities purchasing program. Of that purchase, roughly 80 percent of the product is expected to come from Oregon.

Once purchased, the commodities program distributes the seafood through different USDA food programs, with most of it going to food banks, schools and households in communities throughout the country. 

The latest purchase includes $8.9 million of Pacific whiting fillets, $3.9 million of Pacific rockfish fillets and $3.7 million of Pacific salad shrimp. The USDA previously purchased $45.9 million worth of Pacific seafood in May as part of a larger $159.4 million in funding allotted to purchasing domestic products.

According to a press release from Merkley’s office, the purchase is part of an ongoing push by West Coast representatives to include Pacific Northwest fisheries and processors in the USDA’s efforts to help food industries harmed by the pandemic. 

“Not only do our fisheries deliver incredible products all around the world, they have also been the lifeblood of communities up and down Oregon’s coast for generations,” Merkley said in the release. “That’s why I’ve been pushing to ensure that our fishermen and seafood processors receive the assistance they need to weather the coronavirus crisis, and I’m glad the USDA has delivered on this significant purchase of quality Pacific Northwest seafood.

“This is great news for our coastal fisheries and the processors that provides them well-deserved support for their signature Oregon industry — generating jobs and economic activity rippling out statewide,” Wyden was quoted in the release. “The financial fallout from this public health crisis has landed hard along the Oregon coast, and I’m gratified that USDA has come through with these resources for our state’s world-renowned fisheries and processors.”

The seafood industry was hit hardest when restaurants closed en masse last year and seafood purchases fell by 70 percent nearly overnight. Most seafood in America is consumed in restaurants. and difficulties from that end of the supply chain only trickled down from there to affect fishermen and seafood processors.

Pacific hake, pink shrimp, Pacific rockfish and Dungeness crab are the West Coast seafood industry’s main products, with the hake, crab and shrimp markets suffering mostly from excess frozen surplus from the previous year, while other markets were cut off from their biggest buyers in China.

“Over the last 19 months, the economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Oregon trawl sector have been staggering,” said Yelena Nowak, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. “A loss of primary markets for our products in 2020 and a sluggish recovery of those markets throughout 2021 have strained the industry, putting many of our businesses under a tremendous economic pressure. The USDA purchase of pink shrimp, Pacific rockfish, and whiting from the Pacific Northwest is a much-needed relief that will help our fishing and processing businesses remain operational and profitable, while continuing to support hundreds of local jobs.”

Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer said he was thankful for more targeted support for the local fishing businesses, many of which are family owned.

“I think this is huge for our fishing families here. They’ve been getting hit very hard over the last couple years regarding what they’ve been able to harvest out of the ocean,” Sawyer said. “This will be a huge payback for local families so they can continue to operate and keep their businesses running. Without this support, a lot of them would have likely gone out of business.”

Sawyer added that a rebound in tourism over the summer went a long way toward keeping the local fishing industry alive, and he only expects recovery to continue, especially when the Oregon coast’s Canadian tourist population can return.

“I think things are going a lot better than anyone anticipated,” Sawyer said. “I’ve spoken with a lot of restaurants who even said this was one of the best summers they’ve ever had.” 

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