ELLSWORTH — If it wasn’t clear before last week, there’s a big election just a few weeks away.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was releasing some $530 million appropriated by Congress last March under the CARES Act to assist the beleaguered U.S. seafood industry and fishermen damaged by retaliatory tariffs imposed primarily by China and the European Union on imports of U.S. live and processed seafood.
Total payments to Maine lobstermen based on 2019 landings figures could reach $50 million. The total initially available to Maine fish farmers was zero.
Last week, the aquaculture industry got a chance to share in federal relief funds, but whether most Maine fish farmers will benefit is open to question.
On Friday, the USDA announced an expansion of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to include eligible aquaculture producers. Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 (CFAP 2) will provide producers, including eligible aquaculture operations, with financial assistance of up to $250,000 per individual or entity to help them “absorb some of the increased marketing costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
According to the announcement last week, aquaculture eligible for the program includes any species of aquatic organisms grown as food for human consumption, fish raised as feed for fish that are consumed by humans and ornamental fish propagated and reared in an aquatic medium. Eligible aquacultural species must be raised by a commercial operator and in water “in a controlled environment.”
And there’s the rub. The full USDA announcement refers to “a controlled environment including raceways, ponds, tanks and recirculating systems.” It does not say anything about species commonly raised in Maine such as oysters, mussels, scallops and seaweed that are raised on lease sites in the state’s coastal waters. Some of those species — oysters and mussels, for example — may be raised spread loose on the sea floor. Shellfish and seaweed also may be grown on hanging lines anchored in the open water or in floating bags and cages that may sometimes be placed on the bottom.
Do aquaculture producers who use those methods, the vast majority of Maine’s fish farmers, qualify for the federal CFAP 2 aid?
“Our understanding is that it includes growers using bottom culture at this point,” Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols said Monday morning.
The real answer to that problem will have to come from the USDA. On Tuesday morning, Amanda May, the department’s Maine-based program specialist for CFAP2 said “as long as the mollusks are grown on a lease site, we’re considering it a controlled environment.” The same interpretation appears to apply to seaweed or finfish grown on lease sites as long as they are not owned by a foreign entity. Assuming a grower is eligible for the program, payments are limited to $250,000 per person or entity “for all commodities combined.” That suggests that a producer growing more than one eligible species only gets one bite at the $250,000 apple.
Corporations, limited liability companies and limited partnerships may qualify for additional payment limits if the members of those entities “actively provide personal labor or personal management for the farming operation.”
Producers also will have to certify that they meet the adjusted gross income limitation of $900,000 unless at least 75 percent of their income is derived from farming, ranching or forestry-related activities.
Sign-up for the program began Sept. 21 and will run through Dec. 11. USDA Farm Service Agency Centers will work with producers by phone and use email and online tools to process CFAP 2 applications.
A call center is available for producers who want one-on-one support with the CFAP 2 application process. The number for the call center is (877) 508-8364. Information is also available at farmers.gov/cfap.