An Update from Commissioner Keliher Regarding CARES Act Funds

Dear Industry Member,

Over the past few days I have received several calls from harvesters and the press asking about the CARES Act relief money.  It seems that some are putting it out on social media that “The State is keeping the money” or “It’s only going to support aquaculture.”  One individual asked me, “How are we supposed to know what is happening when no one tells us anything?” That statement shows me that the webinars and conference calls we’ve had to rely on can’t replace in-person communications. Normally DMR would be holding regular meetings, and we would use those opportunities to update people on important topics. But with face to face meetings not happening as they usually would, I’ve had to look for a new way to speak directly to industry. So, while we are in this continued period of uncertainty caused by COVID19, I will be sending out monthly updates on a variety of topics to help keep everyone up to speed.

Regarding the CARES Act money – the federal law that created this fund requires that the money be paid out to commercial fishermen, dealers, processors, aquaculturists and the party/charter fleet.  To help DMR determine how to use the money we conducted a survey back in May to ask industry how the $20 million allocated to Maine for relief of our fishing and seafood industry should be spent.  The vast majority – 79 percent of you – let us know that you want a direct payment – a check. And that’s what we’re going to do.

But here’s the issue that has held things up.   Unlike many other sources of relief in the CARES Act, this particular pot of money has some fairly strict requirements.   Specifically, recipients must certify that they have experienced a greater than 35% loss of revenue from COVID-19, as compared to their previous 5-year average.    Originally, DMR was led to believe that we could do this certification at the level of the fishery.  For example, based on our landing’s information, we can show that almost all of our fisheries had a greater than 35% revenue loss during the spring of 2020 as compared to the prior five-year average.    We believed that by documenting that, we could make every active license holder eligible to receive funds.   However, later in our conversations with NOAA, we were told that the 35% impact must be demonstrated at the level of each individual license holder.

For some of you, that might be easy.   Others may find it harder.   To make the process as painless as possible, DMR is doing an analysis to determine if we can use the landings information we have for the commercial fishing industry to certify the loss at the level of the individual.  We hope this will be a help, since it will mean that approximately 7500 license holders don’t have to all do it themselves.  Because we do not have complete revenue data for dealers, processors, aquaculturists and for-hire guides, those sectors will still need to self-certify this loss.

We are doing this analysis as quickly as possible.   Once it is complete, we will send out both letters and emails.   Your letter will tell you whether or not DMR believes your landings information shows a greater than 35% revenue reduction and if you are eligible to apply for funds.    This is not a final determination – if our data doesn’t show the required level of loss, you will still have the opportunity to submit an appeal.    The letter will also tell you how to submit an application or appeal.   You will be able to do this online, or over the phone – whichever is best for you.

We will have to wait until we have received all the applications before we can start issuing checks, because the size of the check will be based on the number of eligible applications.     Right now, I anticipate that we will be accepting applications and appeals during the month of October, and I hope that checks will be mailed out in November.    If that timeline shifts because of further complications, we will let you know as soon as we know, in a future update.

My goal has always been to ensure our administration of these funds is done as cost effectively as possible. Contrary to rumors that appear to be widely held that we plan to keep 50% of the money for the department, we will only be using a very small percentage of the money, 0.2%, which amounts to less than $50,000, to administer these direct payments.

Based on feedback we got from industry, we’re also going to use a small percentage of the money to help build consumer demand for Maine seafood. Through a branding and promotion program, we intend to build consumer awareness and demand for the quality products Maine’s fishing, aquaculture, and seafood industry produce.

Based on what I’m hearing from the public health experts, we might be in this boat for a while. So, I plan to reach out to you all on a regular basis with updates on what’s going on at DMR.

In the meantime, please stay safe.