Massachusetts lawmakers call on government to help New England fisheries during COVID-19 crisis

Members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give New England fisheries a needed boost as they battle through the COVID-19 outbreak.

U.S. senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, along with U.S. representatives William Keating and Seth Moulton, on 2 April sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asking him to use part of the USD 9.5 billion (EUR 8.8 billion) earmarked for agricultural producers – from the USD 2.2 trillion (EUR 2.0 trillion) CARES Act Congress passed in late March – to help seafood processors and other companies.

New England is home to the lucrative scallop and lobster fisheries, which are regularly among the most valuable fisheries in the country. In addition, New Bedford, Massachusetts, is regularly the highest earning port in the U.S., a title it earned once again in 2018. 

Those businesses employ nearly 5,000 workers, the lawmakers said in the letter. One way they say the USDA could help is by including the region’s seafood products in its Section 32 program, which purchases surplus goods for children’s nutrition and disaster relief programs.

“Although restaurants all across New England that serve seafood products are not currently open to diners, seafood processers are already organizing to turn restaurant product into ready-to-eat meals for Americans to enjoy at home during this crisis,” the lawmakers wrote.

The CARES Act, which is considered the third phase of the federal plan to help the country recover from the coronavirus pandemic, also includes USD 300 million (EUR 277.8 million) for fisheries relief.

In a separate letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on 1 April, the senators urged federal officials to communicate openly with stakeholders how that money will be allocated.

Under the recently enacted law, those eligible for fishery disaster assistance must show they have a 35 percent revenue-loss due to the outbreak.

“In assessing that loss, there are many complex variables for the Department, and its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to consider,” the senators wrote. “These include the seasonality of different fisheries, the timeliness of incoming revenue data, and the diversity of affected markets. Whether and when companies should begin to prepare and submit documents establishing that they meet the 35 percent revenue [loss] are also open questions.”

Markey and Warren recommended Ross hold town hall-style webinars with fishery members to get their input.

They also urged that the funding be released sooner rather than later, noting a 2005 federal disaster declaration for New England took more than two years to get funding to those who needed relief. That created significant cashflow problems for fishermen and businesses.

“This vital USD 300 million in aid will help American fishermen avoid going bankrupt at the dock,” they added. “As you work towards distributing it, we stand ready to help in any way we can.” 

Photo courtesy of Dan Logan/Shutterstock 


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