Cantwell Criticizes “Slow and Inefficient” Implementation of Fishery Disaster Relief Funding, Calls for Streamlining Process

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the top Democrat on the committee, highlighted the devastating impacts COVID-19 has had on the seafood sector and called for a streamlining of the fishery disaster process, criticizing the “slow and inefficient and cumbersome implementation” of fishery disaster relief by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service.

The fisheries sector makes up 60 percent of Washington state’s 30 billion dollar maritime economy, which supports over 146,000 jobs. In her opening statement, Cantwell discussed how 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 percent decline compared to the previous five-year average. In January alone, Washington Dungeness crab fishery saw a 37 percent decline in revenue from the previous year. Overall, U.S. seafood sales have dropped an estimated 95 percent this year.

“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,” Senator Cantwell said. “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 $300 million dollars for the seafood sector in the form of grants and other assistance in the CARES Act to address the loophole. 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.”

At the hearing, Cantwell also highlighted legislation she introduced with Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) that would streamline the fishery disaster process. “While this bill was written before COVID, it is clear even now…that this is an important aspect of what we need to be doing,” Senator Cantwell said.

Senator Cantwell has been a long-time leading advocate for fishing communities and sustainable fisheries management. In March, Cantwell secured $300 million in economic relief for fishermen suffering from the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including $50 million for Washington fishermen, from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In May, Cantwell successfully ensured the release of more than $8.4 million in fishery disaster funds to Washington state communities and Tribes. Cantwell has advocated for reforms to the fisheries disaster process to ensure that small business charter fisherman are included in the Disaster Relief Recovery Act, and throughout her time in the Senate Cantwell has worked with her colleagues to help secure funding for fishing communities impacted by federally-declared disasters.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s opening statement can be found HERE and audio HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s Q&A with witnesses can be found HERE and audio HERE.