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How the Pandemic Has Impacted Washington’s Tribal Seafood Operations

Many were hit hard by the tariffs on geoduck exports to China earlier this year, and then came COVID-19

A man handling oysters at Jamestown Seafood
Jamestown Seafood has seen revenue drop because of the pandemic
Jamestown Seafood/Facebook

When Suquamish Seafoods held its opening ceremony for its new retail store off Highway 305 in Poulsbo, Washington, this January, things looked promising. The company, operated as a separate charter entity of the Suquamish Tribe, celebrated with traditional songs and blessings, and a ribbon cutting ceremony. Customers flooded in to buy Manila clams, geoduck, Dungeness crab, halibut, and more.

“It was proving to be quite successful,” says the company’s general manager, Tony Forsman.

Suquamish Seafoods’ biggest revenue source has historically been geoduck sales to China, but that ground to a halt January 23, when flights to China to import seafood shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It went to zero,” Forsman says of the company’s geoduck business. “We just quit harvesting.”

That part of the business had previously been cut down because of tariffs imposed by China as part of the trade war — a universal experience for Washington seafood companies selling geoduck to Asia. “From 2018 through 2019, we easily lost a million dollars of income because of the tariffs,” Forsman says. That tariff was removed recently, and business had been rebounding, until impacts from the novel coronavirus surfaced.

Suquamish Seafoods operates a seafood processing plant, pays contracted geoduck divers, grows and sells oysters, and buys salmon, crab, and clams from individual tribal members, in addition to operating its new store. Apart from exports and sales at the store, the company also sells to restaurants in Seattle and around the area. With dining rooms forced to close early in the crisis, sales were hit hard there, too. The company’s retail and wholesale oyster operations shut down entirely.

Though the seafood store was considered an essential business, the tribe decided to close it temporarily in the early weeks of the pandemic, out of an abundance of caution.

Now, things have gradually started to rebound: The store reopened at the end of April for curbside sales, and it’s now back up to its regular hours and capacity, with physical distancing encouraged for shoppers. With restaurant dining rooms in Seattle reopening at 50 percent capacity, Forsman sees promising signs. He’s managed to keep his entire staff employed, and he helped contractors apply for financial and unemployment assistance.

Forsman predicts his geoduck business will rebound to its pre-pandemic, pre-tariff levels, but he’s not sure about other aspects of the business, such as oysters.

“The real uncertainty is with our oysters. No way of telling how fast, or if that will even recover this year.”

Further up the coast, Sequim-based Jamestown Seafood, a private company built in collaboration with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, has seen similar declines. Owner and tribe member Kurt Grinnell says the company is built largely around geoduck exports, wholesale shucked oyster sales, and oyster sales to restaurants.

“With the restaurants closing, most of the industry was basically shuttered, except for the shucked oysters,” he says. “We have been just kind of hanging on and trying to ride this out as an industry.”

Grinnell says the tariffs hit his business hard, but “we had started to regroup a little bit and then COVID hit and stopped everything again. And then, of course, as soon as the restaurants closed, our markets closed with them.”

Grinnell is getting more orders for his oysters from restaurants. “We’re about up to around 40 to 50 percent from where we were,” he says. Still, he hasn’t been able to keep his full staff employed through the tariffs and the pandemic. He laid off five employees when the tariffs came into play, and four more — half of his remaining staff — when the pandemic hit. That means he may not have the staffing capacity to plant geoduck seed this year — further driving down future revenue potential.

His sales of shucked oysters have kept the business afloat for now. “You’re treading water and sometimes that’s okay, but you can’t do that forever.”

Even once the pandemic wanes — whenever that may be — Grinnell will have to rebuild his company almost from scratch. But he says he’s not the only one in that position, whether seafood companies affiliated with tribes or otherwise.

“There’ll be many farms that will not reopen,” Grinnell says. “We feel lucky we are able to continue in some capacity. I tell our people, we have to be very patient and look long term and just basically survive these hard times that the country’s going through, the world’s going through. And if we can do that and keep our hopes up, we’ll make it.”