VANCOUVER -- It’s halibut season in British Columbia, and while the catch is good, fishermen across the province are facing problems selling their fish. COVID-19 has significantly slowed the pace of sales to restaurants and overseas of one of the region’s biggest exports.

Doug Kostering, a fisherman who docks in Port Hardy, had a two week delay to this start of his halibut fishing this year as the offices that handed out licenses were closed because of the virus. He estimates that two week delay alone resulted in an up to $30,000 loss in revenue. 

“Wolves are howling at the door,” he told CTV News Vancouver. 

But Kostering is one of the lucky ones - he was able to pay his bills a little late. And he sells to Skipper Otto, a direct-to-consumer seafood distribution company that connects home cooks directly to the people catching their fish, cutting out the middleman. Members subscribe and pay up front at the beginning of the season, so fishermen know there’s money when the catch comes in. 

Others are struggling to find buyers when they come into port.

“Fishermen are in an uncertain industry to begin with. Fishermen traditionally take all the risk up front – they take out lines of credit, they take out loans, they do all the work to fix up their boats and get ready for their upcoming season,” said Chris Kantowicz, Skipper Otto’s COO.

“And they do all that in hopes that not only will they catch fish, but once they have that fish in hand, that there will be a market for it. It’s a lot of risk and all of it lies with them.”

That risk has become liability this year, with COVID-19’s impact on the global supply chain. Fishermen who usually sold their catch to restaurants or restaurant suppliers have had the industry drop out from under them with country-wide restaurant closures.

And those who sell to companies exporting overseas have found an alarmingly reduced market for their product, with many borders and processing plants closed, and little to no demand.

Companies like Skipper Otto are doing well in this climate, as conscious consumers turn to local food. But there’s still a lot of fish and nowhere to sell it.

That’s because the fish caught in Canada doesn’t usually end up in the grocery store. It’s a premium product and is exported to countries that eat much more fish, or served in restaurants. Canadians don’t depend on fish. They can choose beef, pork and chicken as their primary proteins, said Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

"Fisheries and seafood are seen often as a luxury item. Canadians are not necessarily willing to pay too much for fish and seafood."

The fish we do buy, which is cheaper, Charlebois said, is imported from abroad. A huge segment of Canadian seafood is exported, but most of what we actually eat is imported. And that means COVID-19 disruptions make a big difference to both local fishermen and in the aisles of the grocery store.

“Supply chains across the globe are really struggling to have workers to move fish along,” Kantowicz said.

The fact that the fishing industry can’t sell to restaurants means a lot of that premium-grade fish is ending up in grocery stores, Charlebois added, so we won’t see empty seafood displays anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean consumers will buy the more expensive, local product.

"A lot of people have lost their jobs and are on a tight budget,” he said. ”Sometimes some of these options are not affordable."

B.C.’s local salmon stock, already beleaguered by disease, climate change and last year’s rockslide on the Fraser River, could take a hit.

"Salmon is probably the most popular species in retail, so that could be problematic for the industry as a whole,” Charlebois said. “With agriculture you can't postpone seasons. COVID has its own agenda which may force industries to halt activities - including fisheries."

For Kostering and his fellow fishermen, that means a tough season ahead.

"Just trying to get the bills paid and keep afloat basically, for this year,” he said. “And just trying to weather the storm like everybody else."

Some parts of the industry are pivoting to keep their product moving. Organic Ocean, a restaurant supplier, has switched a direct-to-consumer model for the duration of the pandemic. It used to sell to restaurants worldwide, including some with Michelin stars, but that’s been put on hold because it can’t get its fish overseas.

Dane Chauvel, the company’s CEO, said he hopes customers stay with them through the pandemic. It has set up a Shopify page, and with the help of fishermen and a local processing facility, is taking some of the catch that no longer has a market and donating it. On Wednesday, it will be bringing in 3,000 lbs of fresh lingcod for Goodly Foods Society, which operates in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The organization estimates the donation could provide up to 10,000 meals, and says it will be shared with multiple charities.