Federal COVID response a missed opportunity to help Maine fishermen
President Trump’s recent roundtable meeting with fishermen in Bangor was a unique opportunity to bring national attention to COVID-19’s catastrophic impact on fishing communities here in M
aine and around the country. Most Americans are unaware of the devastation the crisis has inflicted on fishing economies, which support 40,000 jobs in Maine and 1.5 million jobs in the United States. The president’s visit put a spotlight on Maine’s fishermen for a brief moment during this time of crisis.
What resulted from this meeting was the opening of a national marine monument south of Cape Cod to additional commercial fishing, and the creation of a yet-to-be-defined fisheries task force. While significant, this action does not address the underlying economic challenge facing Maine fishermen because of the pandemic – the collapse of domestic and international demand for seafood.
Roughly three-quarters of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is eaten at restaurants. With restaurants closed or severely constrained, prices and demand have dropped dramatically – close to 70 percent for many New England species. As families struggled to find healthy, affordable food, fishermen were being told not to go fishing. Seafood is one of the healthiest food choices you can make for your mind, body and the environment. More access to heathy food should be our shared priority. Unfortunately, the pandemic has illuminated the cracks in our national food system, meaning that now is the time to invest in comprehensive solutions to protect local, sustainable seafood for our nation.
Maine’s congressional delegation has been leaders both in the response to COVID-19 and in fighting for the fishing industry. With the White House paying attention to Maine’s fishing issues, we have an opportunity to put forward a bipartisan plan to provide urgently needed relief for fishermen, who have been left behind in the federal response to this crisis.
The CARES Act included $300 million in direct aid for commercial fishermen, of which Maine received $20 million. But that amount does not even begin to cover the pandemic’s ruinous impacts on our nation’s fishing communities, which generate billions in economic activity annually while also feeding the nation.
By comparison, the U.S. agriculture sector has received tens of billions of dollars in direct relief during this pandemic. While relief for farmers and ranchers is much needed, commercial fishermen facing similarly extreme losses have received only a tiny fraction of that amount.
The need is real and urgent. Many fishermen have tried to participate in other stimulus opportunities like the Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment, but these safety nets were not built to support small-scale, owner-operated businesses. Even when this health crisis is over, the economic crisis will affect our small fishing businesses and fishing families for years to come.
Maine’s fishermen need help now, and it is time for the White House and Congress to put partisanship aside and act before entire communities and fishing economies are wiped out.
What can policymakers in Washington do?
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association recently signed a letter to Congress from the national Fishing Communities Coalition requesting immediate action to address this health and economic crisis. The coalition, representing over 1,000 fishermen from Maine to Alaska, requested $5.4 billion to be included in upcoming relief funds for commercial fishermen, roughly equal to the dockside value of seafood landings in 2017 (the most recent National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration data).
The request includes $2.7 billion of funding for the commercial fishing industry to provide direct relief to fishery participants and $2.7 billion for existing programs to be directed to commercial fishermen under the purview of other federal agencies, such as the Small Business Administration and the Department of Agriculture. Expanding these agencies’ authorities and responsibilities to include seafood harvesters in programs that have historically excluded fishermen is a small but important step we can take as a nation to protect our food system.
This is a critical moment. With sound programs in place that include impactful economic relief and a support structure developed with care and input from the seafood industry, we can feed Americans, strengthen our nation’s food security and jump-start the next stage of our sustainable blue economy.
While we’re navigating uncharted waters, seafood is a solution we can all share in. But our fishermen need help now, and they cannot remain forgotten any longer.