The letter of May 4 to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said that the $300 million in disaster assistance allocated to the seafood industry in the CARES Act is appreciated, but not adequate to mitigate the unprecedented losses of dealing with the pandemic to date or anticipated challenges in the coming months.
Like the agriculture sector, which has received billions of dollars in disaster relief, the seafood sector plays a vital role in providing food security for the nation and deserves a sizable allocation of dedicated relief funds, they told Ross.
The letter recommends an additional $1.5 billion in funding for fishermen and American seafood businesses, designating at least 50 percent of relief funds for small and medium-scale operations to ensure that disaster assistance is fairly distributed to a diverse range of seafood harvesters and businesses.
While the recent expansion of the Payroll Protection Program is a positive step forward, many seafood businesses have struggled to get Economic Injury Disaster Loans and funding from the PPP because of administrative hurdles, high demand, competition from larger businesses, and rapid depletion of funds, they said. The coalition urges prioritizing access to relief funds for captains and crew who harvest fish, particularly young fishermen, whether or not they own fishing permits, and extending PPP benefits as needed for businesses that can show an inability to pay their workers or 1099 contractors because of COVID-19 emergency measures.
It would also be a tremendously help for the government to forgive or temporarily defer loans that fishermen and seafood businesses are currently unable to repay, they said.
Costly economic challenges facing the industry range from drastic reductions in sales from COVID-19 measures that closed down restaurants, large institutions and export markets, plus the high cost of maintaining safe operating conditions to prevent the spread of the virus. The seafood processing industry alone will spend millions of dollars to meet requirements of health mandates imposed in Alaska to ensure safe working conditions in their facilities.
The group urged the federal government to ensure that industry workers, including fishermen, have access to free COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, and free medical care. “They are putting their lives at risk by leaving their homes to work during the pandemic, and at a minimum, should not be denied access to testing or be forced to bear the burden of exorbitant medical bills in the event that they require treatment,” the letter said.
The group also urged federal officials to make them eligible to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which has received $19 billion in funding to support farmers and ranchers.