FROM THE SAVING SEAFOOD NATIONAL COALITION for FISHING COMMUNITIES
U.S. Commercial Fishing Interests Describe COVID-19 Challenges; List Top Federal Aid Assistance Proposals
March 25, 2020 — WASHINGTON — The following was released by Saving Seafood’s National Coalition for Fishing Communities:
Late last week, Saving Seafood staff was asked by Congressional offices for comment and input from the Commercial Fishing Industry as to what is being experienced as a result of the disruption resulting from the COVID-19 crisis, and how Federal emergency economic assistance might be able to assist.
Over the weekend, Pacific Seafood took the initiative to work across industry lines to craft letters, which have now been sent to the President, House and Senate Leadership, and Cabinet Members, outlining bold action that can be taken to preserve the operating liquidity of the seafood production employers who provide and support domestic food infrastructure and the millions of jobs they support. An unprecedented outpouring of over 180 companies and organizations throughout the seafood industry participated in this effort. These letters address possible actions in Congress.
To respond to the Congressional requests, Saving Seafood reached out to our extensive network of commercial fishermen and related businesses on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, as well as Hawaii, for input on how COVID-19 has affected their businesses, and for recommendations on what they feel would be the best ways for the government to help. These efforts address possible actions at the local, state, and Federal levels, including both Congressional and Administration/Agency actions.
The fishing and seafood sectors are not homogeneous, and different regions and fisheries are experiencing different challenges; therefore, the forms of assistance described are intended to reflect both immediate pressures where prices have fallen, as well as longer term needs associated with securing future fishing vessel crew-members, and processing workforce.
We would like to express gratitude to Senators Ed Markey, Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Elizabeth Warren and their staffs for communicating the needs and concerns of the seafood industry to Senate leadership. It is our hope that Congress will heed their request, and also recognize and take action to address the reality that our commercial fishing and seafood industries are highly diverse between regions. Additional assistance beyond what is outlined in today’s letters and this release may be needed to address broader near-term critical needs for some seafood producers. Domestic harvesting, production, processing, transportation, and promotion will all need federal assistance to ensure that we can provide a steady supply of healthy domestic seafood to US consumers during this time of crisis.
NOAA’s “Fisheries of the United States 2017” reported that more than 2/3 (68%) of the $102.2 billion that consumers spent on fishery products in 2017 is spent at food service establishments, with less than one-third sold in retail outlets for home consumption. Thus, the necessary closures in the nation’s hospitality and restaurant industry are having an outsized impact on domestic commercial fisheries.
While this effort focused on the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on commercial harvesters and processors, support businesses such as fuel, shipyards, gear manufacturers, etc. are also being impacted by a decline in commercial fishing.
The following is a summary of suggestions made by members of our industry.
- Essential Employee Status – According to guidelines published by the Department of Homeland Security, those employed in fish harvesting and processing are considered “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” as they provide food to the nation. Fishermen and processor staff must also be designated as essential employees so that they would be able to continue operations during any potential shelter-in-place orders. These businesses must also have free and fast testing deployed locally for these essential workers, as testing is a necessary component of onboarding/crewing protocol to safely serve upcoming fishing and processing seasons.
- Grant programs or stimulus to cover losses – In order to maintain domestic seafood supply chains and to ensure continued operations, many businesses in the commercial fishing industry need liquidity. These businesses feel that additional borrowing should be a last resort, as the duration of this crisis is unknown and many businesses are already overleveraged in an attempt to keep up with foreign markets, including Asia where their seafood industry is heavily subsidized. Loan forgiveness for loans used to maintain payroll, grants for maintenance to keep vessels in good working order, and low-interest loans to refinance existing debt would help.
- Payment relief – In addition to direct payments, and forgivable loans, another suggestion that would allow companies to continue operations is the suspension of certain financial obligations such as utilities, real estate tax, and mortgages.
- Government purchase of seafood – The government could increase seafood purchases for institutional use (i.e. prisons, hospitals, school lunch programs, etc.) as well as for distribution as food assistance. The purchases would provide much needed capital, ensure stable prices, allow companies to move stored inventory, and ensure continued operations. This would also ensure a stable supply of fresh, healthy food for those who are facing food shortages.
- Payroll and Unemployment Assistance – Many businesses are concerned that when restaurants, hotels, and bars re-open they will face significant lag time before resuming operations if they are forced to lay off staff during this time. This lag would compound the financial difficulties they are already facing. They would like to be able to continue paying staff or assure them that unemployment payments will be available to quickly fill the gap so that their employees don’t seek work elsewhere. Additionally, many vessel crew members are considered self-employed and do not currently qualify for unemployment or paid leave, so relief efforts must also be extended to these workers.
- Promote American Seafood – On an encouraging note, many businesses are seeing an increase in retail sales of seafood through grocery stores and markets. U.S. fisheries are among the best in the world and this is a perfect opportunity to promote consumption of sustainably caught domestic seafood. A “Buy American” campaign, with simple instructions, could go a long way to helping these businesses move their product and maintain revenue.
- Visa Expediting – Many businesses rely on temporary, seasonal foreign labor for the harvesting and processing of seafood. Current travel restrictions and bureaucratic delays are limiting the number of essential workers available. When travel restrictions are reduced and retail businesses reopen, fishing operations need to be able to staff up as quickly as possible, including hiring essential workers with valid temporary, seasonal visas.
- Federal Fisheries Disaster Action- Declaration of a Federal fisheries disaster opens up aid options including direct subsidies for struggling businesses and low interest loans. The Administration should expedite the OMB approval process of stakeholder “spend plans” for fishery disasters already declared and funded by Congress. There are currently plans sitting at OMB awaiting final approval and funding disbursements. The COVID situation has placed a more urgent need in coastal communities for these previously appropriated funds.
- Supply chain access – Several fishing operations around the country sell their products overseas. They are requesting continued access to and cooperation from officials at ports, rail, and border crossings so that they can maintain their sales.
- Stability of Fisheries Access – In order that the industry may make a full and speedy recovery, to reduce costs, and to maintain supply, we urge reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens currently in place that are preventing access to and sustainable harvest from fishing grounds.
About the Garden State Seafood Association
The Garden State Seafood Association (GSSA) is comprised of commercial fishermen, shore-based seafood processors, commercial dock facilities, seafood markets and restaurants, and various NJ-based commercial fishing industry support businesses. The GSSA membership represents every major port in the State, harvesting approximately $100 million dollars worth of seafood products annually, supporting 2,000 jobs, and contributing significantly to the coastal economy of the State of New Jersey.
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