Washington senator pushes for streamlining of fishery disaster relief

US senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, used a roughly 90-minute hearing called by the Senate Commerce Committee this week to push for the release of relief funds and to make another pitch for the Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act (S.2346), a bill she co-sponsored with Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, the panel’s chairman.

Cantwell, the committee’s ranking member, said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the seafood industry, resulting in a decrease of $21 million in revenue for West coast fisheries — a 40% decline compared to the previous five-year average. In January alone, the Washington Dungeness crab fishery saw a 37% decline in revenue from the previous year, and, overall, US seafood sales have dropped an estimated 95% this year, she said.

The fisheries sector makes up 60% of Washington state’s $30 billion maritime economy, which supports over 146,000 jobs, she added.

“Despite this staggering economic data, many fishermen have not been able to access the COVID relief funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Main Street Lending Program, or even qualify for unemployment based on the nature of their businesses and tax structures,” Cantwell said in a statement issued following the hearing, which was on Wednesday. “USDA food purchase programs have not been able to provide the support for most seafood products, and some USDA programs, including the Farmers to Families Box Program, specifically block wild-caught seafood from eligibility to the program, another blow to the industry.”

“That is why I fought so hard to secure $300m dollars for the seafood sector in the form of grants and other assistance in the CARES Act to address the loophole,” she said. “Unfortunately, the industry has yet to see a single dollar of relief due to a slow and inefficient and cumbersome implementation through NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.”

The hearing also featured testimony from Leann Bosarge, a member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, Cora Campbell, a member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Phil Anderson, chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, and Paul Doremus, NOAA’s deputy assistant administrator of operations.

Though S.2346 was written before COVID, “it is clear even now…that this is an important aspect of what we need to be doing,” Cantwell said.

The bill, which also has been supported by Republican senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, would: “maintain the authority of the Department of Commerce to determine the existence of a fishery disaster; sets forth requirements for initiating a request for a fishery resource disaster review; provide a 120-day time frame for Commerce to evaluate a request, beginning either upon receipt or at the close of the fishery season, if the fishery season closes; establish criteria for Commerce to use when making a determination about whether a fishery resource disaster has occurred; and list eligible uses of fishery disaster relief funds, including for habitat conservation and restoration that reduce adverse impacts to a fishery”.