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Fishing Through the COVID-19 Pandemic…

As an Emergency Medicine doctor on Cape Cod, I have seen firsthand the horrors associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a brutal disease, and it may be here to stay. The virus is highly contagious, and often those infected are asymptomatic, making it truly an invisible threat. Though most of the deaths are limited to high-risk groups, I have seen otherwise healthy younger people suffer horribly with the virus.

I am also an avid offshore fishing enthusiast, fishing either on my boat or hitching rides on others, usually with crews of three to six onboard. When the pandemic started, I joked that nobody would want me, an ER doc, on board with them. As time has passed, I realized that most boat owners probably don’t want anyone as crew right now except for immediate family.
So how do we fish during this difficult and challenging time? It isn’t realistic to wear full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to fish with friends, but the rules have to change now. Until there is a cure, a good vaccine, or the virus goes away for good, social distancing should be here to stay, at least in some capacity. The short-term goal of the government’s approach to the problem is to contain the pandemic so as not to overwhelm the medical system. Certainly, it will be catastrophic if caution is thrown out the window.

The author, wearing full personal protective equipment while working in a hospital emergency room. Such gear is not practical for boating and fishing, so fishermen will need to develop other ways to stay safe.

Unfortunately, as of early May, and just as the Covid-19 infection rate is peaking, many people are not practicing safe distancing precautions. I witnessed multiple boats leaving the harbor this week with squid and striper gear and 3 or 4 young guys aboard who clearly are not members of the same household. A local jetty was packed with fishermen this week, and few seemed to care as they brushed past each other on their way on and off. Almost none were wearing face coverings. Laws aside, there is something wrong with this. Those who don’t practice safety are not only taking a real chance with their own lives, but they are showing grave disrespect for the lives of others, even if not consciously doing so. I also take it a bit more personally, as it will lead to more avoidable cases that present in the Emergency Department. This puts all staff, including me, directly in harm’s way.

I do get it. Understandably, people are getting tired of the isolation and extreme measures we are being asked to follow, but there are good reasons for them. Every day, the news is filled with people raging to get life back to normal, and many states are trying to re-open. I want it too! However, it really isn’t OK to simply go back to the way it was, at least not right now. So until then, we need to develop reasonable policies and practices that will allow not only life to go on, but fishing too!

As of May 14, 2020, Governor Baker’s stay-at-home advisory and essential services order includes guidelines for boating in Massachusetts that state “only persons from the same household should be together on a boat at one time.” Charter fishing is currently banned in Massachusetts. Tournaments are being cancelled. Most tackle shops aren’t fully open, offering curbside or delivery services. What are some ways we can make it acceptable to be back out there?

There was a recent letter sent to state governments by the American Saltwater Guides Association with ideas on how to make the charter boat and guide-fishing business safer. In it they promise to adhere to CDC guidelines and add a few points to help ensure minimal risk to passengers and crew. Preventative actions suggested in the letter include requiring completion of a COVID-19 prescreening questionnaire 24 hours prior to charter departure, limiting the number of clients on board so as to maintain recommended social distancing, wearing approved face coverings and gloves, and regularly cleaning and disinfecting all areas of the vessel.

While it would be great to start things up as soon as possible, my take is that from an infectious disease standpoint, there needs to be strict separation. Perhaps taping off individual areas with six-foot spaces may be helpful. Packing the rails and cabin with passengers is not a wise idea now, and there needs to be thoughts of safety at all times, even if it means limiting charter passengers. Crew should cross into other passengers spaces only when absolutely necessary. And I agree fully with the idea of no sharing of tackle, coolers, and other personal items. Every surface not recently disinfected or surface in someone else’s space needs to be thought of as a possible threat, just as much as others’ breath or cough could be. Remember that this virus stays alive/active for days on glass, plastic, metals, and some other hard surfaces.

Private vessels, which at this time are allowed to fish, also have rules that need to be adhered to for now, such as limiting the passengers to only household members. It seems excessive for long-term, but again, at this time, we are still near the peak of the crisis.

Eventually, friends will need to be together. Fishing is all about comradery, sharing nature and the moments of excitement with others that enjoy the same. Millions of us would choose fishing and boating above all other pastimes. I am not the only one without other household members who fish, and certainly, offshore fishing and fishing in general would be much safer with someone else on board! The parameters outlined by the American Saltwater Guides Association seem useful for the private sector, too. Limit passengers so social distancing guidelines can be followed, don’t share equipment, bring your own cooler, wear a mask, have ample hand sanitizer, never touch your face, and always think about what you are doing.

Luckily social distancing isn’t as hard when shore fishing. Beaches and riverbanks are usually highly amenable to separating fishermen by an appropriate distance. Jetties, fishing piers, and docks pose special problems. Keeping a safe distance from all others except when passing by them is a must, and a mask at all times when anywhere near another person is paramount. If someone leaves an area where they have been fishing for a while, assume that any surfaces are harboring the coronavirus.

My gut feeling is that eventually, mask wearing and distancing, along with basic safety practice, will allow us to all have fun again until this nightmare ends. We will get through this, but we need to do it in a smart way. Please be patient. Our rods will get bent once again! For the time being, I will dream of getting things back to the way they were soon. In the meantime, abide by the rules, stay safe and tight lines!


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