Lessons From COVID-19 on Important Overlap Between People and Policies

Ocean outcomes will improve if we better understand their impacts

COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable individuals are, and how important it is to use data to make good public policies. It has also underscored the inequities inherent in our social systems, as the accumulated weight of decades of discrimination against Black people and other minorities are manifesting in who contracts COVID-19. By combining demographic data with public health data, researchers discovered hot spots in predominantly Black communities and national death rates that were nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population. Latino and Hispanic populations also represented a higher proportion of confirmed cases.

This combination of data is critical so that health experts managing COVID-19 can understand the impacts of their decisions and create appropriate, targeted responses for communities in need. And we need the same type of data and, more importantly, data collection if we are to respond to climate change and how it is impacting the ocean, fisheries and coastal communities. Again, there are lessons to be learned from COVID-19. Nationally, a lack of demographic and underlying health data is stymying our ability to quickly respond and support our most vulnerable citizens. For instance, New York only recorded demographic information for deaths and not cases; in Texas, only 25% of cases or deaths included race and ethnicity information. Public health officials are calling for better data so they can manage this crisis better.

I am an expert in fisheries management, not in pandemic management, but I see similar issues in how we collect and use data in the way we manage our fisheries.

Kelp forest with fish_OC 109396
For instance, starting in March, commercial and for-hire fishing fleets around the United States experienced significant disruptions—beaches and marinas were closed, export markets for seafood were disrupted and local restaurants shut down. While Congress provided $300 million in aid to fishermen and fishing businesses, getting that money to those in need has been slow. Many have concerns that some of the most vulnerable members of the fishing community—crewmembers on commercial vessels and Tribes and other indigenous communities—were unable to access these emergency funds.

We similarly struggle to understand the impacts of serious environmental disruptions on our fisheries. Five years ago, a warm blob struck the West Coast of North America. An unprecedented mass of warm water, it impacted fisheries across the Pacific and created an ecosystem-wide “no analog” state. Oceanographers eventually discovered it as a symptom of climate change manifesting in our ocean. Today, as managers on the West Coast grapple with climate change and how to prepare our fisheries, the need for better data to understand the people who fish is becoming more and more urgent.

Fisheries management has always had to deal with complexity because it’s about more than just fish—our nation’s fishing law specifies the importance of considering the social, economic and environmental factors that go into keeping our fisheries healthy and sustainable for the long-term. And closely tied to understanding those factors are concepts studied in public health.

Fish are the last wild commercially hunted animals in the United States and capturing them entails much of what hunting always has—adventure, isolation, innovation, economic boom and bust, and personal danger. And fish is so much more than what we find in the freezer section or seafood counter of our local grocery store, it is a way of life for many, including American Indians and Alaska Natives. It is the lifeblood of many communities along our coasts, not just economically, but socially and culturally. And wild-caught fish and seafood are two of the world’s healthier forms of proteins, that when successfully conserved and managed, result in health and wealth.

Fisherman getting his net together on the dock under the bridge in Lake Charles Louisiana
With these needs in mind, we began engaging in new work to better understand the wellbeing of fishing communities. In May, Ocean Conservancy co-authored a paper with NOAA Fisheries and Washington State Department of Labor and Industries that explores a public health dataset for use in fisheries management. This dataset is the largest public health survey in the world and contains outcomes related to personal wellbeing, community cohesion, physical and mental health, and economic security. Using data contained in the dataset, we can gain insights into the demographics of fishing communities and their wellbeing. Not only can we better characterize them, but we can get a picture of what challenges communities are facing as well as how they are succeeding.

With this new data, we can also examine issues of social and intergenerational justice, better understanding who has access to valuable fishery resources and how the system is operating either for or against low-income or rural communities, people of color, women or other marginalized groups. Potentially, we can even see how these communities change over time. Time-series datasets such as this can offer an opportunity to examine how events like COVID-19, climate change or even how national and local fisheries policies impact industry members and communities. Having baseline data is the first step to monitoring, seeing change and addressing problems when they arise. Our nation’s fisheries law says we manage our resource for the long-term benefit of all of us; this sort of data is necessary to make sure that promise is being upheld.

Kelp forest scene_OC 104607
While this study is a basic exploration of the methodology and limited to Washington State, this dataset will hopefully be an opportunity to bring more social and economic data into fisheries management and drive our system to be more transparent and accountable in delivering societal benefits to every American. I hope it also encourages us to look outside of the traditional fisheries management body of science—disciplines like public health have much to add to management systems like fisheries that are so much more than extracting protein from the sea.

New challenges like climate change, increasing demand on our ocean spaces and disruptive events like COVID-19 make it clear we need fisheries management that can quickly adapt to new and developing situations. We will never be able to perfectly predict a crisis, but we can design a fisheries management system that purposefully and proactively accounts for social and economic outcomes and protects our natural resources. Part of this shift means intentional planning and collecting more data and information to understand communities and industry members. Pairing this information with more investment in biological, ecological, and oceanographic information will give us a better sense of all the components of fisheries management so we can make better decisions for our future.

COVID-19 has shown us that damaging disruptions can come from many angles and that one of the best ways to confront those challenges is with the right data. For truly sustainable fisheries we need a management system that is more tuned in to the long-term needs of its people, starting with good data about them and an approach that honors the connectedness between a healthy environment and healthy people.

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