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Story Publication logo February 15, 2021

A Tale of Two COVID-19 Extremes for the North Carolina Trout Industry

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Trout live in outdoor channels called raceways at the Setzer State Fish Hatchery in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Image by Emma Johnson. United States, 2020.
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A 2020 climate change report released by the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies lays out a...

An employee processes rainbow trout at Sunburst Trout Farms. Image by Emma Johnson. United States, 2020.
An employee processes rainbow trout at Sunburst Trout Farms. Image by Emma Johnson. United States, 2020.

The Outdoor Recreation Boom

In the 1980s and 90s, the traffic made it almost impossible to drive through the Qualla Boundary, the territory of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), during the summer. Families flocked to Cherokee to visit shops and see the outdoor historical drama, Unto These Hills, which tells the story of the forced removal of the Cherokee to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. In those days, the show, held at the 2,800-seat Mountainside Theatre, would be sold out for the night before lunch.

Over the past decade, tourism within the Qualla Boundary has drastically dropped. There was no 2020 season of Unto These Hills due to the pandemic. It’s the first year the drama hasn’t been performed since it opened in 1950.

While tourism has decreased, two major income generators remain. The first is the casino business—2019 saw close to a $400 million profit. The second is trout fishing with profits stemming from permit sales and other businesses that support the fishermen and women. Trout fishing boomed in 2020 for the Qualla Boundary and all across Western North Carolina. But it wasn’t all good news for the trout industry. Trout farmers who sell their fish to retailers and restaurants were hit hard by COVID-19 and are still struggling to recover.

“Last year was crazy,” said Douglas Reed II, Tribal Hatchery
Supervisor at the EBCI Trout Hatchery. With the number of people coming to
fish, “it looked like Cherokee of the old days, cars bumper to bumper.”

It was unclear in March 2020 what the year would hold for
the Cherokee fishing industry. A tribal-wide closure at the beginning meant
that fishing for tourists was closed too.

Then, as coronavirus restrictions eased, there was a dramatic shift. Fishing permit purchases started to go up—way up. The Cherokee saw some of their highest permit sales ever. By September 2020, sales were up 70 percent from the mean of the last ten years.

Other people who work in outdoor recreation saw similar
trends. Galen Kipar has been a fishing guide for 15 years and is the owner of
Asheville Fly Fishing Company, which he started in 2014. The company was closed
from March 15 to June 1, which meant that by the end of May, they had far fewer
trips on the books than usual.

But a couple weeks after re-opening, it was a different
story.

“The rest of the summer was completely full for every single guide,” Kipar noted. “I’ve seen a 30 to 35 percent increase every year since I’ve been in business, just because the sport is growing. But 2020 was more than that, considerably more than that.”

The Food Service Bust

For trout farmers, however, 2020 was challenging, and times remain tough. Some of the farms are selling to restaurants and other retailers, so as restaurants shut down, the farmers felt this too. As restaurants constantly changed plans, it was difficult for farmers to manage their supply.

Wes Eason is the owner of Sunburst Trout Farms, located on
Lake Logan, a little west of Asheville. He has seen a direct line between
restaurant closures and his sales.

“We were down 70 to 75 percent in sales two weeks after the
pandemic hit,” he explained. “There are restaurants I haven’t sold a single
piece of fish to since March.”

While some restaurants have opened up since then, sales at Sunburst haven’t fully recovered. The winter is normally slow because peak tourist season is in the summer, but this winter has been slower than usual. Things will likely remain slow until indoor dining makes a full return. Eason thinks it’ll be a few years until sales rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s especially challenging for farmers like Eason to
prepare for the future because it takes over a year to grow trout from eggs to
market size. Normally, farmers would have a supply calendar that covers one or
two years. But with the uncertainties in the food service industry, it’s almost
impossible to plan that far ahead.

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