Maine’s seafood industry will get another multimillion-dollar bailout from the federal government almost a year after the first round of pandemic-related federal aid was issued to the battered industry. 

The state will receive about $17.1 million of $255 million in federal funding included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, designed to help the U.S. fishing industry survive, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week. 

Maine’s award was fifth-highest of 28 states and territories, trailing only Alaska, Washington, Massachusetts and Florida.

It’s still 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, despite the pandemic, last year earned $516.7 million, the ninth-highest total on record.

The state is anticipating additional guidance from NOAA and couldn’t comment further, said Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesperson Jeff Nichols.

In May, the state netted $20.3 million of $300 million included in the federal CARES Act, but recipients had to demonstrate a 35 percent revenue loss from their five-year average before they could qualify.

The state received about 2,700 applications for the CARES Act aid.

A final account of fund distribution will not be available until department officials resolve issues associated with some applications, according to Nichols.

Of the $20 million, $1 million was also earmarked for a targeted marketing campaign to promote Maine’s seafood brand to the domestic market.

NOAA said states could use the bailout money to make direct payments to fishing businesses, invest in fishery-related infrastructure or fund fishery-related education programs. 

Officials said the funding can go to commercial fishermen, charter businesses, certified aquaculture operations, subsistence, cultural and ceremonial users, processors and other “fishery-related” businesses. Ship repair businesses, restaurants and seafood retailers are not eligible. 

“Our priority is to award these funds as quickly as possible using existing processes established under the CARES Act,” Paul Doremus, acting assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement. 

The Department of Marine Resources will need to revise its spending plan and have it approved by NOAA. Then, participants can apply for funding. 

Though it remains to be seen how the next round of funds will be divvied up, the first round was “more beneficial for harvesters than businesses in the supply chain,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealer’s Association.

In fact, she said, very few members qualified for any relief.

Many missed out because of the requirement to prove a 35 percent revenue loss, Tselikis said, a percentage that would automatically shutter any of the businesses she works with.

“Seventeen million dollars sounds like a lot of money until you realize how many businesses could be accessing that,” Tselikis said. “It goes away very quickly.” 

The news comes just one week after the department announced that the value of the state’s lobster industry – the largest in the nation – fell by 17 percent over the past year.

The overall haul was valued at almost $406 million – a decrease from 2019’s $491 million, but still only the seventh time in the fishery’s history that the landed value exceeded $400 million, according to landings data.

Maine fishermen hauled in 96.6 million pounds of lobster in 2020, a 5 percent decrease from the previous year’s 101 million pounds and the first time in almost a decade that the numbers fell into double digits.

Still, it was better than fishery officials expected given the hurdles imposed by the pandemic.

While a stronger-than-hoped-for year certainly allowed many lobstermen to breathe a sigh of relief, it also means many likely won’t be eligible for funding.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said she expects that with the 35 percent threshold, some of the state’s other fisheries are more likely to qualify.

Like Tselikis, McCarron noted how “devastating” a 35 percent loss is for many in the industry.

“Given the nature of the businesses, we would have liked to see the qualification threshold not quite so deep,” she said. But, she added, “at least the fishing industry was recognized and the impacts were recognized.”

The CARES Act funding was “a huge help to people” and allowed some businesses to stay stable, McCarron said.

The department managed to turn the money around fairly quickly, all things considered, and McCarron said she expects that with one round already behind them, there will be even more interest in participation for this rollout.

While the lobster industry managed to stabilize toward the end of the year, that wasn’t the case for every fishery.

According to landings data, the value of the state’s entire seafood industry fell by 24 percent last year. Without lobster, that figure fell even further: a 41 percent drop.

According to Ben Martens, executive director of Brunswick-based Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, many of the still-struggling fisheries could benefit from a more targeted approach with this round of funding. 

“This really does present an opportunity to think strategically about how we build toward a more stable future for the fishing community,” Martens said.

The lobster industry was able to respond and adapt, he noted, but “there are some segments of (the industry) that are really struggling and will (continue to struggle) over the next few years as we try to figure out what’s going on with restaurants” and other traditional markets. 

Maine’s catch of monkfish has dried up because of the lack of access to foreign markets such as Korea, and the value of groundfish (cod, haddock, flounder, etc.) was cleaved nearly in half. 

Aquaculture was also hit hard. Not only did restaurant closures mean growers were unable to unload their product, but leaving the oysters, mussels and scallops at their leasing sites meant they were unable to restock the sites, compromising the strength of future harvests.

“Our hope is that instead of a broad sweep of the distribution of funds, we can be a little more targeted and make investments that have long-term impacts for fishing communities in Maine,” Martens said. 

That approach would certainly take more effort, but he believes it would be worth it. 

One of the problems with one-size-fits-all is we lose the nuances of the fishing industry,” Martens said, adding that the “diversity of our fleet is a valuable piece of this equation.”


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