By Penelope Overton
Portland Press Herald
It has been more than a month since President Trump agreed to set aside $300 million in COVID-19 bailout money to help the beleaguered U.S. fishing industry, but regulators have yet to say who is eligible for financial rescue, much less distribute any of the money.
Maine fishermen are growing desperate, and lawmakers impatient, for the U.S. Department of Commerce to announce who qualifies for the bailout, how much money they can get, and how it can be spent. They want the President to release the $300 million immediately.
“With each day that passes absent this assistance, the frustration and economic damage mount,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. “These disruptions have harmed the entire seafood supply chain … and the countless Maine communities whose cultures and economies are anchored by fisheries.”
The Commerce Department’s fisheries division refers reporters asking about the bailout delay to its website, which has remained virtually unchanged since March 27, the date that Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that includes the seafood industry bailout into law.
“NOAA Fisheries understands the urgent need for these funds, and our overriding goal is to distribute the assistance as quickly as possible,” it says. “To that end, we are working daily with the Department and our federal partners to finalize a process to expedite the distribution.”
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a Brunswick-based nonprofit that has been helping Maine’s fishermen seek financial relief during the pandemic, is demanding the release of the funding, too, but warned that its distribution is unlikely to solve all the challenges facing Maine’s fishing fleet.
“The money really isn’t going to go very far,” said director Ben Martens, who is currently helping self-employed fishermen apply for forgivable federal COVID-19 loans and state unemployment. “Agriculture got close to $20 billion. Seafood got $300 million. It just isn’t enough.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, agrees. She is working with a group of bipartisan House members on a letter to request $20 billion dollars in additional aid to the seafood industry in future federal COVID-19 relief packages that she hopes will roll out faster than the $300 million.
According to language in the CARES Act, members of the fishing industry can qualify for the March 27 funding if they can show a 35 percent revenue loss from their five-year average. But questions remain about how current revenue is calculated, especially for those who don’t usually fish in winter.
Warm-weather fishermen can use average monthly incomes from last year’s tax returns to apply for other COVID-19 assistance, like the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, but those programs don’t require an applicant to show proven losses.
“Relying on comparative ex-vessel losses for the early part of this year would not appropriately reflect seasonal fishery, supply chain or aquaculture business losses,” wrote U.S. Sen. Angus King, Pingree and Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, in an April 3 letter to the Commerce Department.
While the bulk of Maine’s most valuable fishery, lobster, isn’t usually hauling during the late winter and early spring, those who do usually earn the highest prices for every pound of their catch during the months that were hardest hit by the COVID-19 restaurant shutdowns, according to Maine state data.
In their letter, King, Pingree and Golden also urged the Commerce Department to give coastal states “reasonable latitude” on how to distribute their share of the bailout package. Accountability could be achieved through advance agency approval of individual state spending plans, they said.
Nearly 70 percent of all seafood eaten in the U.S. is consumed in a restaurant, most of which have been forced to close by government-mandated quarantine orders. At the same time, international sales have dried up overnight as trade and transportation channels have been shut down.