Maine’s plan to distribute the $20 million in COVID-19 relief earmarked for the state’s seafood industry is facing unexpected opposition from federal regulators who say individual recipients, not the fishery as a whole, must demonstrate a 35 percent revenue loss this spring before they can qualify for pandemic assistance.

All of the active licensed fishermen, aquaculturists and dealers in almost all of Maine’s commercial fisheries would have been eligible to receive a share of the state bailout fund under the fishery-by-fishery certification strategy proposed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources in July, Commissioner Pat Keliher said.

“However, later in our conversations, we were told that the 35 percent impact must be demonstrated at the level of the individual license holder,” Keliher said in an email to commercial fishermen on Thursday. “For some of you, that might be easy. Others may find it harder.”

The agency didn’t respond Thursday to questions about how many license holders could be ineligible using individual certification.

The continuing negotiations over the certification plan with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that must approve Maine’s seafood bailout plan, has delayed the distribution of Maine’s share of the $300 million relief fund for the U.S. seafood sector until at least November, a month later than hoped.

A NOAA spokesman did not respond to an email request for an interview about certification requirements Thursday afternoon.

In its draft plan, the Department of Marine Resources estimated that the average payout to one of its 7,400 commercial fishermen, aquaculturists or charter boat captains would have been about $2,100, and the average check cut to one of Maine’s 550 seafood processors or dealers would have been about $6,300. All fishermen would have gotten the same amount, regardless of their size, experience or past profits.

Under NOAA’s individual certification strategy, however, some Maine fishermen may be deemed ineligible for any relief, which would mean those who are would get a little more. How much more will not be known until Maine works out a process for determining eligibility that wins NOAA’s approval.

In his letter to the industry, Keliher said the department is evaluating whether it can use seafood dealer landings records to certify fishermen on an individual basis to “make this process as painless as possible.” Aquaculturists, dealers, processors and charter boat captains, however, will have to demonstrate eligibility on their own.

The delay is frustrating for fishermen struggling to sell their catch, said Ben Martens of the Maine Coast Fishermen Association.

“While we understand that this is a slow process, fishermen are struggling to pay bills and tied to the dock because of collapsed markets,” Martens said Thursday. “We need support now for Maine’s fishermen and we hope DMR will work with the industry to move this forward as quickly as possible.”

The state agency is also planning to hold back $1 million of Maine’s cut to create a targeted marketing campaign to promote Maine seafood this year in hopes of improving domestic markets to offset the pandemic-related losses associated with the closure of restaurants, cruise lines and casinos, according to Maine’s draft distribution plan.

Maine is one of 24 states and six territories or tribal nations in line to get a cut of the $300 million in CARES Act seafood fund. It was the fifth-largest recipient of this funding, trailing only Alaska, Washington, Massachusetts and Florida. As of last week, only six of the state, tribal or territorial disbursement plans had received NOAA approval.

Massachusetts got federal approval for its $27.8 million spending plan in July. The Division of Marine Fisheries worked with an industry‐based advisory panel to decide how to divide up the money, state officials there said. Applications were mailed out last month to licensed members of eligible fisheries with instructions on how to prove their eligibility.

The Massachusetts plan required individual license-holders to attest to losses of at least 35 percent from March through July of 2020 when compared to their previous five-year average. State records show all Massachusetts fisheries suffered in March and April, but some more than others. The value of finfish landings fell 25 percent, but oysters reported a whopping 69 percent loss.

In its draft plan, the Maine Department of Marine Resources didn’t quantify the losses suffered by individual industries, but estimated the combined losses of seafood and fishing industries as a result of pandemic-related restaurant closures, market access restrictions and tourism decline was at least $1 billion, and likely to continue into the fall and winter.

“It is clear that $20 million cannot come close to addressing the impacts that are currently being endured,” the department said in its plan.

Aquaculture was especially hard hit by restaurant closures, the DMR said. Not only were the growers unable to unload their product, but leaving the oysters, mussels and scallops at their leasing sites meant they were unable to stock their sites for future harvests, extending the pain of the current situation well into the future, the department argued.

Maine didn’t create an advisory panel to develop a disbursal plan, or hold in-person meetings to discuss it, because of pandemic-related limitations on public gatherings. Instead, the Department of Marine Resources sent an email to all 9,400 license holders asking them to participate in an online survey over two weeks in May, resulting in feedback from roughly one in 10 commercial fishermen.

Of those who responded, 79 percent wanted the department to spend the money on one-time payments to license holders, according to Maine’s draft disbursal plan. Twelve percent wanted to use the money to support the overall fishing economy, such as seafood marketing, infrastructure projects, or legal support for the lobster industry. Nine percent wanted to do a little of both.

In the letter he sent to the industry on Thursday, Keliher said he has been fielding calls from fishermen and the media over the last couple days to find out when the disbursement checks were going to start showing up in mailboxes, with some pointedly speculating that they would never see a dime of that money. Some believe the state is trying to keep it all, or it’s all going to aquaculture, Keliher said.

To clamp down on speculation, Keliher plans to send out monthly email updates until the department can resume holding public meetings.

“Based on what I’m hearing from the public health experts, we might be in this boat for a while,” Keliher said. “So, I plan to reach out to you all on a regular basis with updates on what’s going on.”

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