Keith Decker, CEO of Blue Harvest Fisheries, said federal relief funds made a “big difference” in minimizing the impact of the pandemic. The company received just over $510,000 last year for its processing facility and four of its fishing vessels, according to state records.
Decker said they used the funds for production line modifications to allow for social distancing and improved worker safety. The company also adopted a temporary wage increase for “hazard pay” for workers who were able to continue working during the height of the pandemic, he said.
SouthCoast commercial fishermen, charter boat owners, aquaculture farmers and processors like Blue Harvest received about 18.5%, or $5.1 million, of federal funds allocated to Massachusetts last year for economic relief for fisheries.
The 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known more commonly as the CARES Act, authorized over $2 trillion in relief to individuals, businesses, hospitals, loan programs and other recipients to help ameliorate the economic impacts of COVID-19.
In May 2020, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced an allocation of $300 million for fisheries assistance. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Massachusetts received the third-highest amount in funding with about $28 million. Alaska and Washington received the most with $50 million each and Maine was fifth with about $20.3 million.
SouthCoast businesses in New Bedford, Fall River, Mattapoisett, Acushnet, Dartmouth and Fairhaven received the combined $5.1 million of the state’s allocation.
New Bedford alone received about $3.8 million, or approximately 13.6% of the state’s allocation. The city also took seven of the top 20 spots for recipients with the highest amounts of aid.
SouthCoast processors in the city, Fairhaven and Fall River took a combined $3.1 million out of the approximate $5.1 million earmarked for the region.
Aid amounts for the region ranged from $1,432 for an Acushnet-based charter boat to $357,916 for seafood processors in Fairhaven and New Bedford.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries was tasked with developing the relief spending plan, which NOAA Fisheries approved in late July 2020. The amount of funds to disperse dropped to about $27.8 million after the costs of personnel and application mailing materials were deducted.
The division assembled an 11-member panel of industry experts to advise the development of this plan, which included former New Bedford Port Director Ed Anthes-Washburn.
State officials and experts divided the relief funds by four categories: about 50% or $13.8 million for seafood processing or wholesale dealers; about 43% or $11.8 million for commercial fishing businesses; 4.2% or $1.1 million for aquaculture; and about 2.1% or $584,000 for charter fishing businesses.
Relative to other states, Massachusetts worked quickly in dispensing the federal relief.
All payments for commercial relief were mailed by Nov. 10, 2020, and all seafood processor and wholesaler relief payments were mailed by Oct. 2, 2020. According to the division, Massachusetts was the first state to distribute the funds and issued all payments by November.
National Fisherman reported last month that Alaska and Washington did not finalize their spending plans until December and in other states, the first CARES relief checks did not go out until 2021.
Only businesses that suffered a 35% revenue loss due to COVID-19 were eligible for CARES funds. The division also developed some sector-specific criteria for aid amount, such as fleet size and number of employees.
The funds provided much-needed relief for an industry seeing up to a 49% drop in landings revenue, according to a recent report from NOAA Fisheries.
Decker said Blue Harvest was able to continue operating its groundfish fleet at full capacity during the summer, which wasn’t possible for all fleets.
The report found 78% of fish harvesters surveyed in the Northeast stopped their fishing trips for some period of time between March and July of 2020.
Some CARES recipients also received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, according to a ProPublica database.
Not all those who applied received funds. There were 1,270 applications, 955 of which were approved.
The aquaculture sector received about $1.1 million statewide, $21,765.81 of which went to the SouthCoast.
Scott Soares, consulting coordinator for the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, said while the funds Massachusetts received were not nearly enough to combat the economic impacts form COVID-19, they were certainly a “great help.”
Soares, who also served on the division’s advisory panel to develop the spending plan, said growers at that time were looking at up to an 80% revenue loss.
Today, they are seeing about a 70% drop on average, but it’s slowly beginning to improve, he said. He expects it could take up to a year or more to get back to 2019 levels.
The state’s aquaculture sector received other forms of relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Nature Conservancy and Cape Cod organizations through oyster purchasing programs — all of which helped move some product.
“A lot of thanks to our legislative leaders who are thinking about the fishing industry,” Soares said. Decker also expressed his appreciation for local legislators.
In late December, Congress passed a second COVID-19 economic relief bill, this time to the tune of $900 billion. Of that, Congress allocated a second round of $300 million for fisheries disaster assistance.
Last month, the division said in a statement the funds will be distributed to states in early 2021, at which point the agency’s working groups will reconvene to aid in the distribution of the next round of funding.
As of Wednesday morning, NOAA Fisheries could not provide further details as to when funds would be disbursed to states.