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NJ Governor Phil Murphy and the state's entire congressional delegation appeal to the Commerce Department and federal Office of Management and Budget for $300 million in fisheries assistance available through the CARES Act.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.  |  May 1, 2020
The Fisherman's North Jersey field editor JB Kasper with a good tautog caught while fishing on party boat, not something that was possible in April due to restrictions on for-hire vessels being able to operate during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo by John DeBona

The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress and signed by the president on March 25 set aside $300 million in COVID-19 relief funding to help the nation’s fishing community. Members of the recreational and commercial fishing industry can qualify for funding if they’ve lost 35% of their revenue compared to a previous 5-year average.

Yet more than month since the cash was made available, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and all 14 New Jersey members of Congress, are still waiting to see how and when these funds are to be dispersed in the areas hardest hit by the global pandemic.

On April 23, the New Jersey congressional delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce (Commerce) and the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) concerning the $300 million in fisheries assistance made available through the CARES Act. The letter addressed to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and OMB Acting Director Russell T. Vought seeks a transparent distribution methodology that accounts for the economic devastation wrought by the COVID19 pandemic in the hardest hit states like New Jersey, and the execution of the disbursed funds as soon as possible.

“The commercial and recreational fishing industries in our home state of New Jersey have felt the devastating economic impact of the pandemic,” the letter states, adding “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.”

Signed by a bipartisan group of congressional members including both U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Senator Cory Booker (both democrats), the letter also boasts the support of all 12 members of New Jersey’s congressional districts with Donald Norcross (D-01), Jeff Van Drew (R-02), Andy Kim (D-03), Chris Smith (R-04), Josh Gottheimer (D-05), Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-06), Tom Malinowski (D-07), Albio Sires (D-08), Bill Pascrell (D-09), Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-10), Mikie Sherrill (D-11), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12).

In expressing their concerns as a group about the distribution of critical aid for coastal fishing communities, the bipartisan delegation is asking the Trump Administration to consider the original congressional intent in distributing funds. “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 said, adding “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 stock.”

Citing New Jersey as a COVID-19 hotspot with the second highest number of cases in the nation, the 14 members of Congress are urging Commerce and OMB to distribute financial aid fairly and in a way that accounts for the significant aid needed by New Jersey’s commercial and recreational fishing communities. “The pandemic hit at the start of the critically important striped bass and tautog season. With restaurants closed, demand for fish has collapsed. New Jersey fishing, processing, distributing, and charter boat workers have had to cease their routine work and have lost revenue. Some tackle shop companies have already announced they will be unable to reopen due to the missing income from recreational fishers.”

“While many states with lower numbers of COVID-19 cases kept their commercial and recreational fisheries open or have already completed their most important fishing seasons of the year, the pandemic has left our fishing industry in dire financial straits,” the group stated.

New Jersey’s governor followed up that request with a letter of his own on April 30, stating how “New Jersey’s multi-billion-dollar fishing industry has been completely devastated by the COVID-10 pandemic,” while specifically pointing out that “New Jersey’s for-hire fleets have lost an entire revenue-generating spring tautog season.”

“New Jerseyans who rely on the fishing industry for their livelihood are hurting, and the federal government must do its part by expediting the disbursement of CARES Act funding,” Gov. Murphy stated in his letter to Commerce and OMB, adding “the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Administration has already begun to consider how to develop and application and technical assistance program, but swift action is needed to ensure this relief gets to those who need it most.”

Gov. Murphy went on to outline a process for disbursement, urging the federal government to disclose data and/or financial records being used to determine assistance, the timeframes incorporated, additional clarity on which sectors of the industry are included in the allocation equation and how each sector is weighted. The governor goes on to request that a template and standardized application be provided to ensure an efficient and easily navigable system for funding distribution and cross-state consistency in application requirements, while urging the federal government to provide funding directions through regional fisheries management bodies like the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to expedite processing and distribution of funds.

According to the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), the letters sent by Gov. Murphy and the congressional delegation from New Jersey address key issues that must be addressed by the federal government in order to fairly compensate those hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis within the recreational fishing industry.

“The problem lies in the fact that each coastal state has been hit by COVID-19 on varying levels, so states have responded differently with respect to stay at home orders, prohibitions on fishing and how they classified their fishing businesses,” said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the RFA. According to Donofrio, the Commerce Department’s initial plans to use 2019 economic output figures for each state to determine allocation of CARES Act fisheries funds is not a true indicator of the socioeconomic impacts from a fisheries standpoint.

“Simply using last year's economic revenues as reported by NOAA Fisheries would not be reflective of the actual losses, and could even dole out more money to states who only modestly constrained their fisheries,” Donofrio said, explaining how some states like New Jersey have seen tackle storefronts, charter boats, boat rentals and some marinas closed for longer period due to a higher number of COVID-19 cases.

On April 28, RFA and United Boatmen of New Jersey (UBNJ) submitted an official proposal to the New Jersey governor, along with Col. Patrick J. Callahan, Director of the NJ Office of Emergency Management, asking for consideration of measures for New Jersey’s for-hire recreational fishing community in order to get captains and crews back to work while giving anglers an opportunity to safely travel aboard party and charter boats during the crisis.

Among the measures pitched by RFA and UBNJ include a limit placed on crew and passengers for U.S. Coast Guard inspected vessels by size of the vessel, a five-passenger limit on charter boats, daily cleaning/disinfecting protocol carried out by crew under the supervision of the captain including frequent cleaning of “high touch” surfaces, use of protective gloves and face gear, daily health monitoring of crew members, a restriction on the sharing of fishing equipment, and touchless payment where possible.

Governor Murphy later appeared on FOX News Channel ahead of an April 30 sit down meeting with President Trump and said he would absolutely take the RFA/UBNJ proposal under consideration. “The fishing industry is really important to New Jersey,” Gov. Murphy told Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, adding “We’ve allowed a certain amount of marina and boating activity to take place, but something like that I would clearly take seriously. No promises, but I absolutely will take that under consideration.”

See A Unified Push To Support For-Hire Fishing

There is a joint meeting of the ASMFC and Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) this week via webinar. According to the Jersey Coast Anglers Association (JCAA), the meeting is a perfect opportunity to place this loss of business caused by COVID-19 on the meeting's agenda for discussion and resolution. In a special request to ASMFC and MAFMC in advance of the May 5-6 spring webinar, JCAA’s John Toth asks fisheries managers to consider adjustments to fishing regulations/seasons, also citing the loss of much of the spring striper run and the entire April tautog fishery at the Jersey Shore.

“Consider adjusting fishing regulations/seasons so that there are longer seasons in the fall and have the possibility of different bag limits; anything to provide better opportunities for party/charter boat captains and the related industries that depend on them for summer flounder and black sea bass to recoup some of their losses,” Toth said in the letter from JCAA, asking that the consideration also be extended to species that closures have had an effect on like the April 2020 season for blackfish.

JCAA legislative chair Tom Fote contacted The Fisherman by phone over the weekend and said the organization’s efforts to get a little flexibility in season, size and bag was not aimed at delaying the summer flounder season start date of May 22, but simply seeking assistance from ASMFC/MAMFC in possibly extending the season a little longer past September 19 to accommodate an expected loss of early season effort.