Seafood Harvesters of America asks for clarity on COVID-19 relief funding

Published on
April 23, 2020

Seafood Harvesters of America sent U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross a letter on Thursday, 23 April, calling on the Commerce Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to communicate how it will use the USD 300 million (EUR 278.2 million) in COVID-19 relief funding to help the nation’s fishermen.

That money was allocated in the USD 2.2 trillion (EUR 2.04 trillion) CARES Act, which Congress passed last month.

“The industry has not, thus far, been made aware of any process NOAA is considering to allocate these funds despite repeated requests from industry stakeholders and Members of Congress,” stated the letter signed by Executive Director Leigh Habegger and President Robert Dooley. “We are concerned that this lack of transparency will result in a process that does not adequately account for fishermen’s economic needs.”

In an email to SeafoodSource, NOAA Fisheries said it has created a COVID-19 strategy team that’s gathering data on the impact the pandemic has had on commercial fisheries and aquaculture as well as tribal, recreational and subsistent fisheries.

“NOAA Fisheries understands the urgent need for these funds, and our overriding goal is to distribute the assistance as quickly as possible," NOAA Fisheries Director of Public Affairs John Ewald told SeafoodSource.

Seafood Harvesters represents 18 regional industry groups from New England to the Gulf of Mexico and to Alaska that serve thousands of fishermen working across various fisheries.

The COVID-19 crisis has slammed the U.S. economy to a near halt with states and communities issuing stay-at-home orders grounding or limiting nonessential businesses, such as restaurants. According to the National Restaurant Association, 40 percent of the country’s dining establishments have closed their doors, with some of those closures expected to become permanent.

With dining options limited to take out and delivery, the association said the industry lost USD 30 billion (EUR 27.8 billion) in March and forecasts losses of USD 50 billion (EUR 46.4 billion) this month.

Those losses have a trickle-down effect on restaurant suppliers, which is why seafood industry leaders and lawmakers from key fishery states have been pushing to ensure fishermen get the help they need to weather this viral storm.

“Approximately 70 percent of the money spent on seafood in 2017 in the United States was spent on seafood consumed at restaurants, cafeterias, and through catering services,” the Seafood Harvesters letter stated. “As these businesses have shuttered, our fishing businesses have also suffered. The U.S. is a global leader in sustainable seafood, but without an immediate lifeline, we risk losing the fishermen, the fishing businesses, and the associated working waterfronts that have made our commercial fishing industry the gold standard.”

The group also stated that continued losses will mean the industry will need even more funding soon to maintain sustainability. Those dollars will need to be dispensed quickly, which is why Seafood Harvesters said responding quickly with this first round of funding is essential. 

And the group is not alone in believing the first round of funding will not nearly be enough.

Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United Director Ryan Bradley said last year alone his state, Alabama, and Louisiana suffered USD 500 million (EUR 464.4 million) in disaster damages alone. COVID-19 will create way more in damages nationwide this year.

"It's likely without clarification from Congress on how to dole out the USD 300 million, it may never get distributed," Bradley told SeafoodSource.

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