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It has been more than a month since President Trump agreed to set aside $300 million in COVID-19 bailout money to help the struggling U.S. fishing industry, but regulators have yet to say who is eligible for financial rescue, much less distribute money.
The Portland Press Herald reports that 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 refers reporters asking about the bailout delay to its website, which has remained virtually unchanged since Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that includes the seafood industry bailout into law.
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a Brunswick-based nonprofit that has been helping Maine’s fishermen seek financial relief during the pandemic, warned that its distribution is unlikely to save Maine’s fishing fleet, the Press Herald reports.
“The money really isn’t going to go very far,” said director Ben Martens, who is 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.”
According to the CARES Act, fishing industry members 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.
“Relying on upon 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.
Maine’s most valuable fishery, lobster, isn’t usually hauling during the late winter and early spring, but those who do usually earn the highest prices for their catch during the months of the COVID-19 restaurant shutdowns, according to Maine state data.
King, Pingree and Golden urged the Commerce Department to give coastal states “reasonable latitude” in distributing their bailout money. Accountability could occur through advance agency approval of 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. Simultaneously, international sales have dried up as trade and transportation channels have shut down, the Press Herald reports.
Watch: Maine’s interstate traffic is down 53 percent