Congressional delegations from Massachusetts and New Jersey took up fishing industry calls for immediate guidance and “transparent distribution” from the Department of Commerce to allocate $300 million in coronavirus fisheries assistance approved by Congress.

“The Trump administration must swiftly make this financial assistance available to fishing communities and allocate it in a way that equitably accounts for the severe economic losses the hardest hit states have endured,” New Jersey’s delegation wrote in an April 23 letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

“It has been nearly a month since the CARES Act was signed into law by President Trump…and yet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not released guidance for the distribution of the emergency aid nor has it publicly stated when that guidance will be released.”

“Since Congress passed the CARES Act on March 25, 2020, the Commerce Department has made only one public statement on the assistance to fisheries participants,” the Massachusetts lawmakers told Ross in an April 29 message.

NOAA’s sole public communication on the CARES Act fisheries aid was six sentences that appeared April 2 on its website, along with the link to an email address for fishermen and other stakeholders to submit information about the economic impacts of coronaries on their businesses.

“Nearly five weeks later, the lack of any further public announcements relating to CARES Act relief is simply unacceptable,” stated the letter headed by Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, both D-Mass.

The New Jersey delegation’s letter, headed by senior House Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., stressed the lawmakers’ concern that the Garden State’s hard-hit commercial and for-hire recreational fishing businesses won’t get a fair share of aid.

“We have been informed that NOAA has proposed allocating the distribution of funds using an unfair formula that calculates the share each state would receive by its average industry revenue,” the letter states. “Such a formula would be inequitable because it fails to account for the state-specific economic devastation wrought by the covid-19 pandemic, including New Jersey, and it does not account for the rolling nature of state economy closures and the seasonality of certain important (fish) stocks.”

New Jersey is a covid-19 hotspot, second only to New York in the highest number of cases in the nation. The enforced closure of restaurants collapsed demand for fresh fish from its ports. Advocates for the for-hire party and charter boat fleets are pleading with Gov. Phil Murphy for some kind of measured reopening to keep those businesses alive.

The Massachusetts delegation complained of apparent internal chaos at the Department of Commerce.

“Conversations with relevant staff yielded contradictory expectations of responsibilities, including confusion over whether the Commerce Department or NOAA would send work products to OMB (Office of Management and Budget) for final approval. In short, the guidance delay appears to have resulted from an unclear chain of command marked by finger-pointing,” the letter contends.

The letter concludes with a laundry list calling for key information:

  • “What is the status of guidance for CARES Act assistance to fishery participants? Which Commerce Department entity is principally responsible for the preparation and promulgation of this guidance?
  • “When will the guidance be finalized and published? What issues remain to be resolved before this can happen?
  • “Will the guidance be open for public comment before it is finalized or will it be issued in final form?
  • Has the guidance been transmitted to OMB? If so, by whom and when? If not, why not?
  • “After guidance is issued, when does the Commerce Department expect to begin distributing CARES Act assistance to fishery participants?”

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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