Our historic and robust fishing industry is among the hardest-hit sectors of our state’s economy, in the fourth month of this pandemic. The “Sacred Cod” that has hung in the Massachusetts statehouse since the 1700s has seen the fishing industry go through many crises, but this one has been unique.
Restaurants have shuttered and large export markets have been disrupted. Fishermen have lost access to critical points of sale and sources of income. With a decreased demand for fresh seafood, many boats sit idle in port. Meanwhile, boat payments are due and families need to be fed.
In the U.S. Senate, I have been fighting on a bipartisan basis alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to secure dedicated economic assistance for the fishing and seafood industries in COVID-19 economic relief packages. Thankfully, this bi-coastal effort got results. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted into law on March 27, included $300 million in assistance for fishery participants and $9.5 billion for affected agricultural producers.
On May 8, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its plan for distributing the $300 million in fisheries assistance. Massachusetts received $28 million, the third-highest award of any state. In 2018, $647.2 million of seafood was landed in Massachusetts, the second-highest amount of seafood landed in any state. And for 19 consecutive years, New Bedford has been the highest-grossing port in the country. The amount allocated for Massachusetts is still not enough to help us weather this storm, so I have asked Senate leadership for $1 billion in fisheries assistance in the next COVID relief package. I have championed the swift, equitable, and transparent allocation of financial aid to fishery participants, and wrote to NOAA on April 2 and April 29 to push for a faster release of funding. Currently, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries is working with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to allocate the $28 million to the different Massachusetts fishing sectors.
In another success, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on May 4 that it would purchase $20 million in Atlantic haddock, pollock, and redfish as part of its program to purchase agricultural products for food banks. Historically, the USDA has failed to include East Coast seafood in these types of purchases. I led members of the Massachusetts delegation in pushing for the USDA to use its CARES Act funding to purchase East Coast seafood from affected producers, writing to USDA in April and May, and was glad to see USDA respond to that request. These purchases will help East Coast seafood producers that have been devastated by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Atlantic pollock, haddock, and redfish producers can enter the bidding process by contacting USDA and becoming an approved vendor.
The fishing industry in Massachusetts is as old as our country itself; we cannot abandon it during this time of need. I will continue to work with my fellow lawmakers in Washington and federal agencies, including USDA and NOAA, to make sure our fishermen, processors, charter boats, and other seafood providers are supported. Together, we can ensure our iconic fishing communities remain strong, vibrant places of business and make it through this crisis.
Ed Markey is the junior United States senator for Massachusetts.