Don’t Say COVID-19: Fishermen and Women May Pay With Their Lives

June 29, 2020 | 3:49 pm
Photo: Sam Beebe/Flickr
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

NOAA Fisheries (formally known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) has instructed its staff not to mention or explicitly refer to the COVID-19 pandemic or coronavirus in any communications. Instead, fisheries staff should talk about “existing health mandates and travel restrictions.”

Why? That’s not exactly clear, but it is no secret that the Trump administration has consistently downplayed concerns about the pandemic while loudly calling for reopening the economy. The result has been another dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases.

It seems NOAA learned nothing from that last such suppression of agency science, when the Trump administration’s NOAA suppressed an expert hurricane forecast to avoid contradicting the president sowing confusion among the public. Right now, the administration is actively trying to convince people that COVID-19 cases are climbing only because of increased testing despite the absurdity of that claim. All the real scientific evidence is that both cases and deaths have been underestimated by a wide margin.

Now fishermen and women, already engaged in one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, are not to be warned about further coronavirus-related risks. They work in confined spaces where distancing and personal protection measures are difficult. Dockside services bring a host of new contacts that can’t be avoided. And the struggle for market access, lack of financial support, and the collapse of the restaurant sector for higher end sales makes the COVID-19 pandemic particularly hard on this industry. More will sicken and die while the administration hides information that contradicts the president’s preferred narrative that the pandemic is going away.

A look back in history at another time when the safety of fishermen and women were ignored comes to my mind.  In the 1850s Captain Robert Fitzroy, who famously captained the research vessel HMS Beagle for Charles Darwin’s expedition, took on the challenge of weather forecasting. He eventually founded the UK Meteorological office in 1854. But his system of forecasting storms a few days in advance came under political fire because fishing vessel owners were afraid their crews wouldn’t want to go out when a storm was forecast.  Even though that caution would save lives, it might lose the owners money. So they attacked Fitzroy and even shut down his storm warning system for a while.

Has NOAA learned from past experience or history? Not obviously. NOAA Fisheries is a science-based agency. I know, I was a scientist and manager there. It has great capabilities and has a very tough job.  Fishermen have made great sacrifices to move their industry to embrace sustainable practices.  That is due to the hard work of many in the industry and in NOAA and state and tribal agencies.

To instruct NOAA Fisheries staff not to talk about or refer to the scientific evidence that COVID-19 is having on fishermen and the fishery business is unjust, dangerous, and just plain wrong.