March 26, 2020


US seafood sector awaits aid from US$2 trillion stimulus package


The US Congress is nearing finalisation of a third COVID-19 stimulus bill totalling up to US$2 trillion (EUR1.85 trillion) in across-the-board relief, which includes provisions for the fishing industry.


The US Senate is expected to vote on the package on the afternoon of Wednesday, 25 March, and the House of Representatives—currently in recess-is expected to reconvene for its own vote "as soon as possible," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said. President Donald Trump has also expressed his support for the bill on Twitter.


The legislation includes financial support for companies of all sizes that have lost customers as a result of the public response to the COVID-19 crisis. It also features incentives to encourage companies to keep employees on their payrolls. It also includes direct payments to low- and middle-income families, and unemployment insurance that will pay out up to four months' worth of income for laid-off workers and those who have faced reduced work hours. Also on the table, according to a press release from the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), are loans for small businesses that would be considered forgivable if the money is used for payroll, mortgage, rent or utility costs.


While the bill continues to be fine-tuned, the Republican senators from Alaska, US Senators Lisa Murkowksi and Dan Sullivan, and their Democratic counterparts from Massachusetts, US Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, sent a letter to Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) asking them to ensure the COVID-19 bill also includes provisions for the fishing industry.


Like other sectors, the seafood industry has been hammered by cratering markets for fresh seafood. With restaurants in many states either closed or limited to just offering take-out and delivery, demand for fish, lobster and other seafood products have dramatically decreased. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has also drastically shrunk export markets.


However, some programmes included in the latest relief package, such as expanded unemployment insurance, may not help fishermen, many of whom are self-employed.


"When evaluating potential support, Congress should consider the establishment of federal procurement programmes specifically for US seafood products; helping fishermen with vessel loan payments and refinancing; qualifying fishermen for unemployment insurance; funding federal fisheries disaster assistance; and deploying other financial support mechanisms to maintain the stability of the seafood industry," the senators said in the letter. "We also strongly support robust funding for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the regular appropriations process to ensure that the global pandemic does not compromise management of our nation's fisheries."


"It is our hope that Congress will heed their request, and also recognise and take action to address the reality that our commercial fishing and seafood industries are highly diverse between regions," the industry group, Saving Seafood, said.


To supplement their effort, Saving Seafood detailed a campaign, led by Pacific Seafood, to send letters to President Trump, his Cabinet, and the leadership of the House and Senate, asking for "bold action that can be taken to preserve the operating liquidity of the seafood production employers." More than 180 companies, as well as the National Fisheries Institute, took part in the campaign, according to the group.


According to the letter, the industry requires support "to preserve the operating liquidity of the food production employers who provide and support domestic food infrastructure and the millions of jobs it supports."


"Failure to do so risks unprecedented decline in essential economic activity that will severely affect both workers and our nation's ability to continue feeding itself," the letter said.


Directing the bulk of financial support provided by the government to seafood purchases is the quickest and most effective way of supporting the industry, according to the letter.


"Facilitating direct government purchase of products that have gone unsold due to the government's unprecedented response to the COVID-19 crisis would both ensure stability in this key sector and provide healthy proteins for Americans," it said.


Murkowksi, Sullivan, Markey, and Warren said more government help might be necessary to stabilise the seafood industry. A fourth coronavirus-related stimulus package will be considered over the next few weeks, according to Politico. Saving Seafood also said the seafood industry may need more help that what will be provided in the current stimulus package.