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In search of aid: Congress pushing for help to local fishing industry battered by pandemic

By Staff | Apr 21, 2020

In Southwest Florida, perhaps no other industry makes its mark so directly on the culture and day-to-day life of its tourism business as the commercial fishing industry, which provides fresh seafood to local restaurants.

With most of the major restaurants that serve seafood to diners closed since last month (except for those serving takeout) in response to the coronavirus, the fishing industry has taken a major hit locally.

Congressman Francis Rooney (R-FL), whose district includes Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs and Cape Coral, along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), and 24 additional Members of the House of Representatives from the Florida Delegation have sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross regarding the economic status of the fishing and seafood industries in Florida. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act appropriated $300 million to Secretary Ross and the Department of Commerce to aid those struggling in the fishing and aquaculture business.

Rooney recently publicized the letter to bring attention to the impact on the fishing industry. The letter calls on Ross to “work expeditiously to provide guidance with regard to the disbursement of these funds, taking into account the full range of sectors harmed by this crisis” and to work with the Department of Agriculture “to ease the burden this crisis has placed upon our commercial fishing industry. We also urge you to continue coordinating with the Small Business Administration, the Treasury Department, Regional Fishery Management Councils, and other stakeholders to guide fishing and seafood businesses to the relief available under the Paycheck Protection Program. Finally, we urge you to expedite consideration of the State of Florida’s pending Fisheries Disaster Declaration request concerning red tide events between 2015 and 2019, which took a devastating toll on our ecosystems.”

Rooney said Florida’s fishing and seafood industry are “key to financial recovery in Florida. It is imperative that funding in the CARES Act be designated to the Florida seafood industry — including those in Southwest Florida. Their businesses have suffered immensely due to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.”

Among them is a major commercial and retail supplier of seafood based in Cape Coral.

Patrick Krieg and his wife Kerryanne have owned Merrick Seafood in the Cape for more than 30 years. The damage being done to the local fishing and seafood industry is of an “epic proportion,” Mr. Krieg said.

“Southwest Florida is being battered by all of the national disasters,” Krieg said.

He believes the impact of the economic fallout from the pandemic and shuttering of dine-in restaurants “will be disastrous” to the fishing industry.

“The main issue I’m hearing is how long it takes to get a response,” Krieg said regarding applications to the federal government for its loan programs. “Everyone’s hoping they can have access to some of these funds.”

“The timing is essential. A lot of businesses are hanging by a thread,” he added.

“While we are trying to bring back our employees, they haven’t been able to access that kind of relief,” Krieg said regarding qualifications for unemployment insurance.

“We could definitely use additional relief quickly.”

Krieg said the company, which also operates the Fish Tale Grill, a gourmet restaurant at the same location, and a commercial warehouse, had approximately 50 employees before the fallout from the pandemic but has only about nine right now. “It helps people keep their jobs. It helps their families. We try out best to provide what hours we can.”

Krieg said his wholesale business is down approximately 90 percent.

“We’re not able to sell to restaurants,” he said.

“For to-go’s (carryout orders), it’s hard to cover your overhead,” he said. “The local people here have been very supportive.”

“It’s a disaster for just about everybody down here,” he said.

“We’re just hopeful the government can get as much funds into as many hands quickly.”

Merrick is not alone.

Grant Erickson, who owns Erickson and Jensen on Fort Myers Beach, the main shrimping port in Florida, said his business could use federal assistance due to a nearly complete halt in the restaurant business on Fort Myers Beach. Erickson’s family has been involved in the fishing business in town since the 1950s.

“I hope it’s true,” Erickson said of the funds Florida’s congressmen are seeking for fishermen in the state. “We could use it.”

Erickson said the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdown measures have “hurt our market with all of these restaurants closed down because so much seafood is eaten at restaurants.”

Erickson said there has been a 20 percent drop in the price of shrimp. In addition to the business he does in supplying restaurants and supermarkets, he sells shrimp at the company’s headquarters at 1100 Shrimp Boat Lane on Fort Myers Beach. “Everybody needs to come down and get some shrimp because it’s cheap,” Erickson said.

There are 10 different types, with the smallest being five-pound bags of shrimp caught out on the Gulf of Mexico by his fleet of 12 boats as well as other local fishermen who he buys the seafood from. “I’m like a broker,” he said.

Erickson said he is hopeful that the restrictions placed on businesses during this pandemic will be lifted soon. An announcement has been expected this week by Gov. Ron DeSantis as to how the economy will be opening back up. “I wish they would open it up so people can get back to normal,” Erickson said.

Sen. Rick Scott’s office said they expect more funds to be added this week to the Small Business Administration’s $350 billion Payroll Protection Program (PPP), which has already run out of funds due to the demand from businesses nationwide. Scott said he supports adding funds because “there are many small businesses that need it. But we cannot throw caution to the wind in the middle of a crisis. We still have to be smart about how we spend taxpayer dollars.

“I am concerned that many businesses with thousands of employees have found loopholes to qualify for these loans meant for small businesses. Unfortunately, when it comes to the PPP, millions of dollars are being wasted,” Scott said.

“Congress must clarify that PPP loans will only be available to businesses that show a substantial reduction in revenue due to the Coronavirus. Second, I have heard from many constituents that they are unable to access the loans at their bank because of requirements individual banks are setting. These requirements were not in the law and are leading to many small businesses having a very hard time accessing these dollars. Congress must make it clear that banks should not and cannot set these requirements that actively withhold help from those in need.”

Rooney said it is “inevitable that they will add more money” to the PPP.

“All of our businesses are under siege down here,” Rooney said.

“I hope they spread it around,” Erickson said.

(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.)