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N.J.’s sinking fishing industry nabs $11M life raft from state

February 2, 2021
In The News

Nearly a year after being approved by federal lawmakers, financial relief is being handed out to New Jersey’s battered fishing industry.

Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced Friday that $11.3 million in grants are being distributed to Garden State fishermen, and the businesses that support them.

“Our fishing communities and seafood industries are important parts of our New Jersey identity, and crucial components of our state’s economy,” Murphy said in a statement. “The grants our administration is making to our partners in fishing industries will help the business and communities impacted by this public health emergency. I continue to encourage our New Jersey family to support our fishing industry by buying from local seafood suppliers and enjoying fishing through our local charter boat operations and bait and tackle shops.”

To be eligible for funding, businesses had to show a 35% decline in revenue. Eligible businesses included commercial fisheries, aquaculture businesses, seafood processors, seafood dealers, recreational charter boats and bait shops.

Of the grants awarded, $6.1 million was awarded to the state’s commercial and aquaculture sector, according to the DEP, while seafood dealers and processors were allocated $3.8 million. The recreational fishing sector got $1.1 million.
 
Other businesses, like vessel repair shops, seafood retail locations and restaurants, were not eligible for the relief funding.

The businesses receiving the grants will be notified next week, according to the DEP.

“From our Delaware Bay oysters to our tilefish in Belford, fishing is engrained our culture and a staple of our economy,” Shawn LaTourette, the DEP’s acting commissioner, said in a statement. “To our recreational and commercial fishing industries and the vibrant communities they support: Help is on the way.

Beyond the relief money, the state has created a “Support NJ Seafood” website, which showcases businesses that sell seafood caught, grown or harvested in New Jersey waters.

The relief money was part of the $2 trillion CARES Act which was passed by Congress and signed by former President Donald Trump in March.

That law included $300 million in relief to the nation’s fishing industry. New Jersey’s $11.3 million allocation was announced by the U.S. Department of Commerce in May; it was the ninth-largest amount of all states.

“Our fishing communities have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which is why I fought so hard to include robust funding in the CARES Act and have worked to ensure that funding is distributed to those who need it most,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th Dist., said in a statement. “I’m pleased to see that New Jersey’s commercial and recreational fishing industry is finally receiving the help they need.”

The DEP then had to develop a spending plan for that money, and that plan had to be approved by federal regulators. That process was completed in October, and the state began accepting applications for the grants that month.

More help should be on the way. The omnibus COVID-19 relief package passed in December — the one that included $600 direct payments for individual Americans — included $300 million for the nation’s fishing industry.

Fishermen around the country saw dramatic declines in money driven by the pandemic, according to a recent federal report examining COVID-19 impacts on the seafood industry between January and July of last year. During that time, the nation’s commercial fisheries saw revenues sink about 29%.

While commercial operations were able to find some flexibility in switching from supplying restaurants to servicing supermarkets, recreational for-hire captains spent the opening months of the pandemic with no income as lockdown measures were put in place.

Across the Northeast, charter boat trips plummeted 97% in March and April, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. Business picked up as social distancing rules were loosened in May and June, but the number of charter trips in the region remained well below normal.

Bob Rush, a member of the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council and a for-hire captain who runs charter boats out of Sea Isle City and Barnegat Light, said he’s frustrated that recreational operations like his cut such a small share of the relief funds. He said the federal government set the allocation guidelines, and the state was restricted in how it could divvy up the money.

“It should’ve been a more equitable mix,” Rush said.

Rush applied for a grant, and he’s hoping to find out in coming days if he has been awarded the funds. But applying for the relief was an arduous task of bookkeeping, according to Rush, and he’s frustrated the process has taken this long.

“Other states already have there’s out and paid out already,” Rush said. “Here it’s [almost] February, and we’re still waiting.”

Still, any relief money that’s available is critical. Rush said he saw a roughly 50% drop in income in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019.

“For my two boats that I have, we put a lot of money out of savings in back in April, May and June to keep our business afloat. To keep employees going,” Rush said.

The biggest help the government could give though, Rush said, would be to loosen capacity restrictions on for-hire charter boats. He argues that he can safely handle more customer per trip, especially because everyone is outdoors on the boat.

“What I’m actually hopeful for is that they open us up. Period,” Rush said.