New Jersey’s fishing industry found lifeline in coronavirus relief aid

First two aid packages to send over $20 million to many of the state’s most vulnerable fishing-related businesses
Credit: (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
File photo: A commercial fishing boat in New Jersey waters; New Jersey’s fishing industry has been hit hard during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone stood beside the water at Monmouth County’s Belford Seafood Co-Op, flanked by several New Jersey fishermen, and reflected on the tumultuous year that the state’s fishing industry has endured.

When the historic $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was making its way through Congress one year ago, Pallone (D-6th) recalled that at the time he “was concerned that we needed to have specific money targeting to the fishing industry.” Those in the state’s fishing industry, he continued, “often get left behind.”

Because seafood is such a dynamic product, typically undergoing six changes of hand as it moves from seafloor to table, it is particularly vulnerable to any tremor in the economy. Add in a legacy in New Jersey of overfishing, pollution and disease and you have an industry toughened with an ability to weather adversity.

But when almost every link in that critical supply chain shut down last March, “Everybody was scared,” said Dave Tauro, manager of the co-op.

New Jersey received $11 million from the first $300 million tranche of aid to the fishing industry nationwide last year — the ninth-largest payout in the country — and, Pallone said, the state will get about the same amount when funds from the follow-up aid package that was passed in December are disbursed later this year. There isn’t a specific earmark for the U.S. fishing industry in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan from the Biden administration, which cleared the Senate and was set for a final vote in the House of Representatives Wednesday. Monday’s news conference was an opportunity for Pallone to tout the $300 million that he, Rep. Andy Kim (D-3rd), and other coastal lawmakers lobbied to have carved out of both the CARES Act and the $900 billion December follow-up package.

“When we protect and properly manage our resources,” said Shawn LaTourette, acting commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, which was responsible for administering the grants, “we’re also supporting the people and the businesses who rely upon those resources, businesses like our commercial and recreational fisheries that are so critical to the state’s economy and identity.” 

Oyster farmers, charter boats, bait and tackle shops

In all, the emergency grants were paid out to fishing-related businesses from Delaware Bay oyster farmers to Barnegat Bay fluke captains to Ocean County charter boats — and Middlesex County bait and tackle shops, like Fred’s Bait and Tackle in South Amboy, owned by Jung Kim.

“We have faced and overcome many challenges, but nothing could have prepared us for 2020,” said Kim, who along with his wife has owned the bait and tackle shop for more than 35 years. “Our store faced financial loss of sixty to sixty-five percent; one year into the pandemic, our walls and freezers were almost empty, and we were worried about how we were going to replenish our merchandise and supplies for 2021.”

Credit: (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)
March 8, 2021: At a news conference in Middletown, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. listens as Jung Kim says two rounds of federal aid will help him keep his bait and tackle shop in South Amboy open this year.

The grants from the first $11 million began reaching applicants, including Kim, in the fall. “We will now be able to replenish our merchandise and take care of our customers,” he said.

Seventy miles to the south, in Barnegat Light, Captain Tim Brindley said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News that he was pleasantly surprised by the money he received.

“Ironically, fishing was one of America’s first industries and we always get left behind in crises like this,” said Brindley, whose one-man fluke operation, Northeast Commercial Fishing, is a staple at Barnegat’s Lighthouse Marina. “So, it was refreshing to see things done differently this time.”

More than expected

Farther south, in Cape May County, Matt Williams described the money as not just lifesaving, but more than he expected when it appeared in his bank account one day in January.

Williams owns and operates South Bay Shellfish Company, which raises oysters on a 1.5-acre lot on the Cape Flats region of the Delaware Bay. Oyster aquaculture, Williams pointed out, is no different from farming — that is, you must make plans at least a year in advance.

“We start putting deposits down for seed (juvenile) oyster this time of year, and we have to buy equipment to gear up for the season,” Williams said. “At this point, if it wasn’t for that money, I wouldn’t have much in the bank.”

The roughly $22 million in direct funding is a fraction of the estimated $1 billion that New Jersey’s fishing industry contributes to the state’s economy annually, and it will only carry businesses so far should the country be seized by another wave of COVID-19 infections. But to people like Tauro, Belford Seafood Co-Op’s manager, the targeted approached toward small businesses feels like a big improvement on the past.

Last April, as the coronavirus’ grip tightened on his business and the future only seemed grim, Tauro, like Brindley, had little faith the government would come through for small operations like his. He recalled how, despite being destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, the Co-Op received no federal aid. “We got no money, no grants,” he had said. “I’m afraid it’s going to happen again.”

On Monday, Tauro was happy to have seen things work out differently. “The money is a big help for us,” he said. “It really is.”