Senators: Without aid, fisheries may sink at dock

GREGORY BULL/Associated Press/Fishing boat captain Nick Haworth, right, carries tuna to a dock for sale Friday in San Diego. Haworth came home to California after weeks at sea to find a state all but shuttered due to coronavirus measures, and nowhere to sell the catch. A handful of tuna boats filled with tens of thousands of pounds of fish are now floating off San Diego's coast as they scramble to find customers. Haworth was selling on Friday to individuals for less than half what he would get from wholesalers. "This is a quarantine special," he joked.

Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey are urging the U.S. Senate leadership to include the commercial fishing and seafood industries in any economic relief packages passed by Congress or face potential bankruptcy at the docks.

Warren and Markey, working with Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, wrote in a letter to the Senate leadership that the spreading novel coronavirus has robbed fishermen of their most dependable markets and left all quadrants of the seafood industry struggling to keep businesses afloat.

"Some fisheries are completely shut down because there is no market for their fish," the senators said in their letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. "Seafood processors are struggling because closed restaurants are no longer buying fresh products."

"Large export markets in virus-affected countries like China have also been disrupted. Additionally, many fishermen are not eligible for unemployment benefits because they are self-employed," the senators said.

The letter traces the dire economic chain reaction the spreading virus has foisted on the fishing and seafood industries, from harvesters and processors to retailers and wholesalers.

"When boats sit idle in port, unable to fish, fishing captains cannot make vessel loan payments or pay crew members. Crew members often depend upon their captains to provide meals during fishing trips, and are therefore lacking meals and pay. Without congressional help, this industry might go bankrupt at the dock."

The senators point out the commercial fishing and seafood industries are important drivers of the American economy, producing $5.6 billion in seafood landings and $11.6 billion in processed product.

They said Congress should consider establishing procurement programs "specifically for U.S. seafood products," as well as helping fishermen with vessel loan payments and refinancing, qualifying them for unemployment insurance and funding a federal fishery disaster assistance program.

"We also strongly support robust funding for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the regular appropriation process to ensure that the global pandemic does not compromise management of our nation's fisheries," the senators wrote in the letter to leadership. "Without assistance, we face the real possibility of losing a significant portion of our fishing industry to economic challenges caused by COVID-19 and forever changing the character of our working waterfronts."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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