$4.5M Allocated for Virginia Fishermen; Where’s the Excitement?

Waterman Scott Wivell, of Cape Charles, tongs for oysters. Photo by Rachel Stevens, Bayside Studios. Used with permission.

By Connie Morrison —
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced earlier this month the allocation of $300 million of CARES Act funding for fisheries and the seafood industry, with just over $4.5 million headed to Virginia. The funding was ballyhooed by Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in a press release.

But eligible recipients don’t seem excited about the news.

“I have no faith in that system,” said Gloucester waterman Daniel Knott, vice president of the Virginia Watermen’s Association. “Show me one waterman who is involved in that process. The large ones are the ones who will benefit,” he said, likening the $300 million for fishermen from the CARES Act to the Paycheck Protection Program loan program, which saw some large corporations exploiting loopholes to benefit from the program.

Cape Charles waterman Scott Wivell also does not expect to see any of the CARES Act money. “Especially being a small time commercial Fishermen we are often overlooked,” he wrote in a text response to the Post. “I expect most of that money will go to large aquaculture operations and charter boats.”

When the CARES Act first came about, Knott applied “for all available benefits,” like the paycheck protection and disaster loans available to everyone. He was denied “or given the runaround,” he said.

“It was so promising, then everything failed. … I think because I wasn’t asking for a lot of money.” Knott thinks banks targeted their largest customers because banks collected fees from the loans and they got a larger return for making larger loans.

At the very least, it will be months before watermen and fishermen watermen and fishermen see their promised money because the Virginia Marine Fisheries Commission has to develop a plan, with guidance from NOAA, about how to distribute the funding, and NOAA must approve the plan.

The VMRC sent a survey to fisheries participants to gather information for the plan. The survey can be completed online at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GQ3M7T7

“This survey will help the agency determine priorities and ensure that VMRC is making the best use of these limited funds as the agency develops our spend plan” reads a notice that accompanies the survey. “This survey will be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute any guarantee of assistance or count as an application.” Completed surveys are due June 1.

Processors, wholesalers, dealers and distributors, charter fishing operators, are also fisheries-related and eligible for funding. Vessel repair businesses, restaurants, and seafood retailers are not eligible. Funding recipients must meet a threshold of economic revenue losses greater than 35 percent related to COVID-19 as compared to the prior five-year average.

The snail’s pace of the pass-through CARES Act funding is compounded by a crab market already in turmoil because there weren’t enough H2B visas for the immigrants who usually pick crabs. H2 visa holders “do everything. They’re the major labor force,” Knott said, but the seafood industry is lumped in with the hospitality industry and a lottery system is used to determine who gets the labor.

Some of the picking houses don’t have the labor they need, and without buyers, crabbers are finding other ways to stay afloat.

“You kind of figure it out,” said Knott. “They are making a living, but not a great one.”
Some have retrofitted trucks or trailers to keep crabs cool and are finding direct markets in urban areas. One waterman he knows is making and selling crab pots.

“A lot of watermen are resilient like that,” Knott said. “Even if they are out there every day barely paying the gas bill, that’s what they’re going to do.”

Wivell found markets in Maryland. “We have been fortunate that crabs have been selling this whole time even if it’s at a much lower price than usual,” he wrote. “Many of the crab houses in Maryland are take outs that were deemed essential so that basically saved the industry from collapse even if we are still barely hanging on.”

There was also consternation over the amount of funding designated for Virginia. Alaska and Washington were each allocated $50 million, more than 11 times Virginia’s allocation. Twelve states and federally recognized American Indian tribes of the West Coast (as a group) received more funding than Virginia; 11 states, five U.S. territories, and federally recognized tribes of Alaska (as a group) received less than Virginia.

“I put that solely on the senators at the federal level,” said Knott.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria, representing Virginia’s 2nd District, recognizes the inequity.

“Virginia ranked fourth in the nation in seafood landings with over 362 million pounds, and our fisheries account for 7.4% of all aquaculture sales in America. It is unacceptable that NOAA’s allocation does not accurately reflect Virginia’s contribution to the national fishery and aquaculture industries or the losses our watermen are facing,” she said in a May 20 press release.

When NOAA unveiled its distribution plan, “It was unacceptable to me that Virginia will only receive $4.5 million or 1.5% of this assistance,” she said.

“I want fishermen to know we are fighting for them and trying to get them something,” said Chincoteague fisherman Jim Dawson. He, Luria, and Bloxom have had meetings and phone calls about the funding, adding that Luria has been trying to attach aquaculture growers and commercial fishery producers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $16 billion in direct support to farmers and ranchers and the $3 billion commodity purchase and distribution program.

“We are greatly disappointed in the amount of disaster funding Virginia received. This funding falls woefully short of even beginning to address the devastating impacts fisheries and aquaculture businesses have suffered due to COVID-19,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler in a May 7 press release. “The fishing industry in Virginia supports thousands of jobs and generates millions in revenue. The Administration must release more funding to help our coastal communities and businesses.”

Despite the hardship and uncertainty, watermen endure. “It’s the nature of beast and why people become watermen. … They appreciate the challenge,” said Knott, who was drawn to the water in retirement after a career that included 22 years in the military.

“I wouldn’t do anything else — don’t want to do anything else,” he said. “Most people would tell you it’s more of a calling.”

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