Guest Column: Some federal relief but a complicated season ahead

It was early May when I first learned how much of the $300 million in CARES Act funding for the nation’s seafood sector had been allocated to Maine. First, the good news: Maine is receiving $20 million to provide relief to fishermen and fishery-related businesses, such as dealers, processors, aquaculture operations and party/charter operations affected by COVID-19. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) made the allocations based on a multi-year average of the total annual revenue of each region’s commercial fishing, charter fishing, processor, and aquaculture sectors. The $20 million Maine will receive represents the fifth-highest amount awarded to 31 different recipients (other states, jurisdictions and Tribes).

Now, the bad news: Maine is only receiving $20 million. Don’t get me wrong — $20 million is a lot of money, and I am grateful to the Maine delegation for their hard work to get this funding approved and directed toward Maine’s seafood industry. But at the same time, $20 million isn’t a lot of money, not when you start trying to divide it up among the many deserving recipients across all of Maine’s fishing sectors. Remember, in 2019 the landed value of just Maine seafood was nearly $700 million. DMR sells roughly 20,000 licenses and permits. With so many businesses in every part of the supply chain suffering the impacts of drastically reduced markets, $20 million can’t possibly address all the needs.
In recognition of this reality, Governor Mills has communicated to our congressional delegation the need for additional funding for Maine’s seafood industries. There are already efforts underway to secure billions more for U.S. fisheries to fund such efforts as additional disaster assistance, purchase of seafood for foodbanks, and development of markets and advertising to increase seafood consumption. I am hopeful that these efforts will be successful, but in the meantime, I am well aware of the urgency to get the dollars that we do have into the hands of the people who need them.
Toward that end, DMR conducted an online survey to collect as much input as possible on the best use of these limited funds. By the time the survey closed, we had received nearly 900 responses. Overwhelmingly, people favored direct payments (85% of respondents), even understanding that a system that simply divided the money up among all eligible parties would mean a relatively small amount for everyone.

Patrick Keliher is the Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources. DMR photo.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts. We received many useful comments and good information on the timing and nature of the impacts.
We are still waiting for final guidance from NOAA, but my staff has been working on the details of how a system of direct payments could work across all eligible sectors. Once that is worked out, DMR must submit our proposed “spend plan” for approval. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has been tasked with coordinating and assisting the states with getting the payments out. My goal is to do this as quickly as we can. I will then, with the full support of the Governor and the Maine Congressional delegation, focus on trying to secure a second pot of funding to address the longer-term impacts of this crisis.
While I hope that the direct payments will provide some immediate relief, we also need to be prepared to act to help ourselves as the potential impacts of reduced markets and processing capacity play out over the summer. While there is no way of knowing for certain, a “guess” would suggest that if lobster landings in Maine and Canada occur as they have historically, there is the potential for there to be large volumes of lobster with no place to go and negative impacts to the price this summer as a result.
If that is where we find ourselves, I truly believe that this problem is best solved by the industry (harvesters, dealers and processors) working together to communicate market realities and reduce the supply as best we can to match the demand, rather than the state stepping in with sweeping management actions. In my opinion, state intervention should be a last resort.

While I know it is easier said than done, everyone needs to be prepared to set aside past baggage and try to trust that everyone in the industry will be working in good faith toward the best outcome we can achieve in a terrible situation. It is very likely that no one will have the luxury of just going on auto-pilot, doing everything the same way we have in years past.
Throughout the spring, I have maintained an open line of communication between the Department, dealers and representatives from the harvesting sector, to try to stay on top of the situation as it evolves. At various times I know some people have wondered why we still need to talk, as certain things started to sort themselves out. I think that ongoing communication is valuable to build a common understanding of what is happening, so that if and when we need to find ways to cooperate, we are better prepared to do so.
I know that all this uncertainty means that this is a scary time for you and your family. We are being called upon to meet challenges we couldn’t have possibly imagined. Nothing we have done in the past has prepared us for this. It will not be easy, but by working together I believe we can find a path forward to better seasons ahead.