By Jay Sterne and Emily Patrolia
Here we are in 2021, yet it feels like we are in the 15th month of 2020. So many in the U.S. are dealing with the cumulative and ongoing impacts of COVID, and the next round of federal relief will be critical for many sectors around the country. On Friday House Democrats passed their American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (H.R. 1319) in a first step towards making President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan a reality.
Unfortunately for the fishermen, seafood processors, and all the ancillary industries that depend on them, the final version of this massive relief package neglects the seafood sector.
The original text of the bill included $4 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to purchase and distribute agricultural commodities, including seafood, and make grants for food processors, including seafood processing facilities and processing vessels.
However, in a last minute amendment, the terms “seafood” and “seafood processing facilities and processing vessels” were struck from the bill. It is rumored to have been due to parliamentary concerns related to which committees the bill would be referred to in the Senate for the reconciliation process.
This is not the first time the seafood industry has been left out or forgotten, but it should not go down this way. These hurdles, while seemingly made without malice or ill will toward the seafood industry, are unacceptable barriers to the U.S. seafood industry receiving much needed relief.
Per NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. seafood industry supported 1.2 million jobs and added $69.2 billion to our nation’s gross domestic product in 2017. Not only is this industry an economic bedrock for local and regional economies, but they are woven into the fabric of our society and our identity as a nation.
COVID-19 has devastated the industry. A study on the effects of COVID-19 on fisheries in the U.S. found that catches declined by 40 percent, imports by 37 percent, and exports decreased by 43 percent compared to the previous year. Consumer demand for seafood from restaurants dropped by nearly 70 percent during lockdowns, with recovery varying by state as restaurants reopened.
The sector is hurting. Without federal support at this critical time, we could lose many parts of our seafood economy permanently.
Ensuring the seafood industry survives the economics impacts of COVID-19 is not a partisan issue. Congress provided $600 million total to fishermen in two earlier relief bills - the CARES Act in March, and the second relief measure in December 2020.
Those dollars are still in the process of being allocated almost a year later.
Congress has already acknowledged the importance of including the seafood sector in both of the previous COVID relief packages, and ensuring seafood could benefit from the same USDA programs as the rest of our food industries would have been critical in this package to provide the relief the industry needs.
Democrats and Republicans alike were frustrated by this last minute change in the House version of the American Rescue Plan Act. Some Democrats committed to making clear their intentions that seafood be included in the $4b provided to the USDA.
But intentions, promises, and even phone calls to the newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, while very appreciated, are not enough. At the end of the day, without clear language and funding from Congress, the seafood industry will be left defending its worth to an agency that is more aligned with the interests of agriculture producers, and has been historically apathetic toward the seafood industry.
Congress and the Biden Administration need to show the U.S. seafood industry that they are a valued part of our nation’s food security, and support the nutritious food they put on our plates as well as the value they offer to our society. It is well understood that, from a national security perspective, we must protect our domestic food production at all costs. We need to ask ourselves if we will allow jurisdictional and parliamentarian barriers to keep us from doing what needs to be done to secure our seafood industry’s future in the midst of a pandemic.
When the bill moves forward in the Senate, we call on leaders to find a creative solution to ensure that seafood doesn’t get the short end of the stick yet again, and be drowned by parliamentary concerns.
Emily Patrolia is the President and Founder of Environment, Science, and Policy (ESP) Advisors and is a policy advocate, marine scientist, and ocean enthusiast.
Jay Sterne is the President of Windward Strategies and as an attorney and consultant has worked on federal fisheries and seafood policy issues for more than 25 years.