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$50 million in CARES Act assistance may not be enough for all of Washington’s seafood industry

CrabPotsSunrise.jpg
courtesy of Andy Mitby, commercial fisher and captain of The Ragnarok.
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Crab pots at sunrise on the Washington coast.

Washington state is receiving $50 million in CARES Act assistance to bail out its commercial seafood industry. This is the highest allocation among all state fisheries in the country -- only Alaska received as much. Yet officials are concerned it may not be enough.

The industry includes commercial fishermen, seafood processors, charters, guides and outfitters…the list goes on. Collectively, it brings about $600-million dollars annually to Washington’s economy. But this year, it’s been hit hard by COVID-19.

“As of early as January, many of our fishing businesses that depend on international markets started to see sales drop off,” says Raquel Crosier with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

And as the year progressed, the key domestic market tanked, as restaurants shut down. Certain seafood businesses that have lost 35 percent of their income will be eligible, Crosier says. These are the ones that deal directly with fish: state commercial fishers, shellfish growers, charter boat owners, processors, and tribes. What’s tricky is deciding if others should be included; the state has some discretion.

“We're actually worried that even though Washington got one of the highest allocations, that $50 million, that with just those sectors called out in the legislation, we may not have enough,she says.   

Many in the industry say fishing guides, crew that work on commercial boats, charter offices and other businesses that depend directly on the fisheries should be included.

The state is also grappling with what time frame to coverIf it opts to include fisheries over the entire year, that means everyone who qualifies has to wait longer to get the money. But the nature of these businesses is highly seasonal.
Alaska is looking at covering the entire year, because the majority of their impacted fisheries are later in the summer and fall (especially salmon fisheries.) But Oregon is looking at February to June, because they didn’t see the same early losses from the export markets and they want to get the assistance to businesses as soon as possible; California is looking at January to June.    

Washington has huge numbers of shellfish growers and harvesters, who took big economic hits early on in the pandemic and have been hurting for months.

“For a winter fishery, like the crab industry, that can be a big deal because that was through a good portion of the harvest season,” says Robert Sudar, a Columbia River salmon wholesaler who also serves as an advisor on fisheries. He says the six-month model here would be a mistake.

“For salmon. It doesn't work as well. We've lost our spring fishery, where it would have applied. It won't help us in in August and September and October when the majority of our remaining salmon fisheries locally take place.”

Washington’s industry also includes many fishermen who home port here but get their main income from salmon runs in Alaska during that time frame.

Three state agencies are working with the governor’s office to decide the parameters. They’re aiming to finalize the requirements by the end of this month. They’re also hoping additional funding will come through for a second round of grants.

Meanwhile, the state is accelerating the rollout of a marketing plan to encourage Washington residents to support the industry by seeking out local seafood.

We have a lot of different types that are available that you probably didn't even know about because nobody told you about them before,” says Sudar.

A good example is local whitefish, which he says is like an inexpensive version of cod. He also recommends seeking out several varieties of rockfish. He says talking to fishmongers about what’s available that’s local is a great way to help many struggling businesses.

“I don't think your seafood has to come from a long way away. We have a lot of fisheries. Get to know them. Ask your fishmonger about them and speak up in support of those fisheries.”