Maine is in line to get $20.3 million to help its battered seafood industry weather the COVID-19 storm.

The award comes out of the $300 million in federal funding included in the CARES Act to help the U.S. fishing industry survive pandemic-related economic losses. Maine’s award was the fifth-highest out of 31 states, trailing only Alaska, Washington, Massachusetts and Florida.

It’s unclear how the funds will be split among the 18,000 licensed fishermen, seafood dealers, processors, aquaculture operators and charter fishing operators that make up Maine’s seafood industry, which nets an estimated $788.2 million a year in revenues. The sector has been especially hard-hit by the pandemic.

“This relief package will help America’s fishermen and seafood sector recover from this unprecedented challenge,” said U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a statement. “I thank our fishermen for their commitment to keeping our communities safe.”

The agency split the $300 million up proportionally among the 31 commercial fishing states, basing each award on the multi-year average of revenues generated by that state’s commercial fishing, charter fishing, processing and aquaculture industries.

The department is still fine-tuning grant eligibility guidelines, but said it will be up to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Maine Department of Marine Resources to come up with the state spending plan. The plan must be signed off on by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The department will be working to develop a plan to distribute these funds as soon as we have additional guidance,” said state Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. “While this funding is a welcome step forward, additional funding will be necessary to fully mitigate the losses.”

The news comes more than a month after President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act into law.

NOAA said states could use the bailout money to make direct payments to fishing businesses, invest in its fishery-related infrastructure or on fishery-related education. Not everybody on the working waterfront is able to apply, however – NOAA singled out boat repair and bait operations as ineligible.

According to language in the CARES Act, industry participants can qualify for bailout funding if they can show a 35 percent revenue loss from their five-year average. NOAA said it is up to each state to determine who meets that requirement.

While the bulk of Maine’s most valuable fishery, lobster, isn’t usually hauling during the late winter and early spring, those who do usually earn the highest prices for every pound of their catch during the months that were hardest-hit by the COVID-19 restaurant shutdowns, according to Maine state data.

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 shutdown orders. At the same time, international sales have dried up overnight as trade and transportation channels have been shut down.

The fallout for Maine’s $485 million-a-year lobster industry is likely to be worse, as entertainment, food service and restaurants comprise 80 percent of that industry’s markets, according to data from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the state’s largest and oldest lobster trade group

“We are glad that Maine fishermen will finally see some direct relief,” said MLA director Patrice McCarron. “The MLA is grateful to Maine’s delegation. … Unfortunately, $20 million will not be nearly enough to offset the economic hardship experienced by Maine’s fishing industry due to (COVID-19).”

Direct relief will help keep Maine fishing businesses intact so they can continue to employ the estimated 10,000 captains, crew and students who make up Maine’s fishing fleet and another 5,000 people employed on Maine’s shores in the industry’s lobster supply chain, McCarron noted, citing a Colby College study.

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a Brunswick-based nonprofit helping Maine’s fishermen seek financial relief during the pandemic, echoed McCarron’s concerns. Director Ben Martens said it wouldn’t come close to healing the economic wounds inflicted upon Maine’s iconic working waterfront.

“Unfortunately, these resources are just a small patch on the giant economic hole this pandemic has created in the marine economy,” he said. “Our hope is that (Maine) will do everything (it) can to ensure this much-needed support gets to the fishermen on the docks and on the water.”

Maine’s federal lawmakers celebrated the news on Thursday while vowing to seek more federal assistance.

The congressional delegation – U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – issued this joint statement: “This targeted relief will provide crucial support for workers, help our seafood supply chain survive, and assist the families and communities that depend on this important economic sector.”

This week, Pingree joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers seeking another $20 billion for U.S. fisheries that would be used to fund direct disaster assistance to fishing families, the purchase of surplus seafood for donation to needy families, and development of markets and advertising to increase seafood consumption.

“The pandemic has exposed many underlying weaknesses in the global economy,” the group wrote in a letter Tuesday to U.S. House leaders. “(It) highlighted the importance of taking steps to not only shore up the economic health of fishing families and their communities, but also to put the infrastructure in place to ensure long-term success and sustainability of America’s fisheries.”

Separately on Thursday, Collins and King joined a bipartisan group of 25 senators in urging the Senate leadership to include an additional $3 billion for the nation’s fishermen and seafood processors in upcoming coronavirus relief legislation.

Specifically, the senators recommend the allocation of $2 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and redistribute seafood products to food banks, and another $1 billion – on top of the $300 million in the CARES Act – to NOAA to support direct payments to fishermen, processors, dealers, and others in the seafood supply chain.

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