May 13, 2020

FLORIDA KEYS — Both commercial and for-hire fishermen in the Florida Keys hit hard by the economic shutdown spurred by the novel coronavirus may apply to receive a portion of $23.6 million allocated to the state through the CARES Act Stimulus.

Of the $300 million slugged for federal fisheries’ assistance, Florida is to receive about 12.7%, or the fourth largest share behind Alaska, Washington and Massachusetts.

While Capt. Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, says the Keys fisheries have been slighted, he remains optimistic about the upcoming lobster season.

“This pales in comparison to what was made available to the agriculture and livestock industries, but this is what we have to work with,” he said Monday. “We have a lot to be concerned over. It was the importance of the Keys fishermen that helped us out [in Monroe] of the 2008 recession fairly well. We could have the same rebound if we, in fact, maintain a strong fishery. We export 80% of live lobster to China, and when that fishery reopens on Aug. 6, we don’t know what the market in China will be. We’re hoping for a strong market.”

NOAA will administer the funds through the interstate marine fisheries arms. For here, that’s the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which will, in turn, contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to identify and establish a plan for fishermen to apply for funds.

This designated process may put cash in fishermen’s hands faster.

“We are going to rely primarily on our partners at the interstate marine fishery commissions during the award process because they have a demonstrated track record of disbursing funds provided to them quickly and effectively,” said Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries.

The Keys are the largest seaport in the state for spiny lobster, stone crab and bait fish sales, according to Kelly, and each has been hit hard by coronavirus-related shutdowns.

“What we see now is that there isn’t a spiny lobsterman who hasn’t lost money in the state,” Kelly said. “We saw high COVID-19 infection rates in South Florida around March 17 and the authorities closed restaurants. About 80% of what we fishermen sell domestically is sold in hotels in restaurants.”

March is typically a high harvest month for stone crabs, but fish house freezers were full well ahead of its May 15 closing date.

“Stone crabs got a two month early shutdown,” Kelly said. “That creates financial problems and then factor Hurricane Irma of September 2017 where a number of our fishermen, who lost a lot of their gear or their homes, are still recovering financially from that. There was $44 million allocated for that relief. We are still waiting two-and-a-half years since then. Those moneys are still not paid out.”

Florida’s commercial fishing operations supply 84% of the nation’s grouper, pompano, mullet, stone crab, pink shrimp, spiny lobster and Spanish mackerel. Both the commercial fishing and seafood products industries in Florida provide more than 13,000 jobs and have added-value contributions of over $730 million.

“Even if we aren’t open to outside tourism just yet, the Keys people will rally around each other and support each other,” Kelly said. “I’ve been here for 40 years, it’s what we do.”

Those eligible for funding include tribes, commercial fishing businesses, charter/for-hire fishing businesses, aquaculture operations, processors and related businesses.

Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, said FWC officials have asked for suggestions on how to disperse the funds.

“It was clear to us that there was a significant oversight in the breakdown of the funds by county and also clear they were struggling to find a resolution to benefit the fisherman equally. What it looks like they came up with … was a blanket disbursement to all licensed fishing guides that hold ‘commercial’ saltwater licenses. By our calculations, that would amount to about $270 per license holder in Monroe County.”

Dan Ellinor, the commercial fisheries liaison for FWC, said the agency will be posting a questionnaire on its website in the coming days to gauge its application. That website is myfwc.com/conservation/special-initiatives/caresact.

Questions may be emailed to CARESAct2020@MyFWC.com.

tjava@keysnews.com