Bureaucracy and negligence of key Puerto Rico and federal government agencies responsible for the development of the fishing sector affect the disbursement of post-hurricane funds, as well as money to mitigate losses due to COVID-19.

Photo by Cristina Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Fishery of Loíza, Puerto Rico

Three years after Hurricane María made landfall, fishermen in Puerto Rico have not seen a penny of aid funding to cover losses caused by the storm, several fisheries have not yet been repaired and others have been unable to resume their normal work due to lack of equipment, boats or ramps. At worst, some have closed down.

The bureaucracy in the management of the funds, coupled with neglect in how the procedures were handled by the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) have been the obstacles to access to money, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) found.

“We would have been better off if we had been swept away [by the hurricane]. [The Department of] Agriculture told us they didn’t know what to do with us. They left us on our own. We take the catch to a driveway of one of the fishermen’s homes, but when those refrigerators are full, we have to stop fishing for a week or two. Right now, we have nowhere to store the fish. We have nothing, nothing, this is how we are: nowhere,” said Rey Alma, president of the now defunct Villa del Ojo fish market, located on Crash Boat beach, in Aguadilla, in the northwestern coast, where 42 fishermen worked.

After the 2017 hurricane, this fishery was left in ruins and the remains were demolished after new maritime-land zoning limits came into effect, Agriculture Secretary Carlos Flores Ortega explained. Although the official suggested moving the fishery to another area in town, even the fishermen are unaware of the exact place and when that process would begin.

Photo by Nahira Montcourt | Center for Investigative Journalism

Carlos Flores Ortega, secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

Property titles to seven government fisheries still unavailable after seven months

Although FEMA did not specify to the CPI the reasons why the entirety of the funds assigned to the fisheries has not been approved or disbursed, the Agriculture Secretary acknowledged that the stumbling block is that the agency has not provided proof of property titles for seven of the fisheries it operates.

Flores Ortega said the recovery funds claim was made as a whole for the 33 fisheries that belong to Agriculture. That is why, upon the inability to prove its ownership of seven of them, FEMA is holding back funds from all of them.

The problem with property titles was publicly denounced on February 24, 2020 by agronomist Víctor Marrero, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Fisheries Program, during a public hearing held by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Federal, International Relations, and Status chaired by Rep. José Aponte Hernández.

Seven months later, Agriculture has done nothing to solve this problem and to identify the whereabouts of the property titles in the Puerto Rico Property Registry.

“I have to be really sincere: [the search for property titles] has been postponed to handle other things of extreme priority. There are things that are urgent and there are things that are immediate, and we have been in that process,” the Secretary of Agriculture conceded.

Although the CPI insisted on knowing the specific fisheries that are missing property titles, the agency did not provide the list. Flores Ortega limited himself to saying that the process to identify these titles was put off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that once the situation is stabilized, the agency’s legal division will work to finish the search for those documents.

Photo by Cristina Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

For three years, fishermen around the island juggle battered structures, like this pier in Humacao, in order to exercise their trade.

A hot potato: blame, not recovery funds is passed around

The winds and waves of Hurricane María knocked down the dock of the Centro Agropecuariofishery in Cataño, in the North coast. There, half of the parking lot’s tar crumbled into the bay water. The town’s fishermen removed some of the tar with their hands, said Rodolfo Abraham, spokesman for the fishery. The freezers, the ice machine, the security cameras, the air conditioners, and all the fish inventory that existed at the time were also damaged.

They’ve had to join forces to make a comeback. They fixed the pier, as far as they could, with wood that they bought on their own. There are 22 fishermen in thatfishery. “We are in limbo. If it weren’t for the help from other organizations, we wouldn’t have been able to restart,” Abraham acknowledged.

According to the fisherman, it took two years for the Secretary of Agriculture to learn of thefishery’s status after the hurricane in 2017. This year, Abraham said, he has not been seen in the area to find out how fishermen are dealing with the pandemic and declining sales.

A survey conducted by the CPI — which was answered by 31 of the Agriculture Department’s 33 fisheries — reveals that at least eight villages have not been visited by any official of that agency in three years to learn about the impact of the hurricane. The villages El Corcho in Naguabo, in the East coast and El Bajo in Patillas, in the South, did not respond to the survey because “they are abandoned,” several consulted fishermen confirmed.

Photo is courtsey of fishermen

Espinar fishing village in Aguada.

The Secretary did visit the Martenillo fishery in Fajardo, in the East coast, after the hurricane, and again this year, said Elba Dávila, a fisherwoman and leader in the facility. However, these visits have been of little use, since the space is currently in disuse due to damage that has gone unrepaired since 2017.

“[With María] we lost the dock, which was made of wood. The ramp was damaged. The roof of the fish shop has leaks and the cement rod exploded. The front door was damaged, allowing vandals to break into it. Two fishermen lost their boats and we don’t have freezers or refrigerators,” Dávila said. She said that so far they have not received any help from either the government or private organizations , as has happened with other fisheries.

Flores Ortega has also been to the Punta Santiago fishing villa in Humacao, in the eastern coast several times, according to Antonio Torres, spokesman for that group of fishermen. He explained that in this fisheries — which groups 17 fishermen — the losses amounted to $40,000. He said that so far they have not received any aid from the Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve had to survive. With María we lost like 600 pounds of assorted seafood. We lost eight freezers and the ice machine, which was like $9,000. Apart from the damage to electricity systems, toilets, kitchens. Our losses were over $40,000. That does not take into account individual losses and the costs of not being able to work for more than a year,” Torres explained. The fisherman said that the Secretary of Agriculture expressed his interest in painting the Punta Santiago fishery. However, Torres said he was against that, as he believed that, given the damage to the infrastructure, “that was not a priority.”

Despite acknowledging the low priority his agency has given to solving the property title problem, Flores Ortega blamed FEMA for the delay in disbursement of all of the funds requested to compensate for disasters in Puerto Rico’s fisheries. The official was frustrated over how long it has taken to receive these funds and criticized FEMA for constantly changing inspectors.

He said that each change in personnel has meant starting the inspections in each of the fisheries from scratch, which has taken almost three years. Although the CPI was able to validate that there have been changes in FEMA personnel, the survey also shows that 15 fisheries have not received any visits from that federal agency since the hurricane struck in 2017.

“It’s a slow process. Sometimes teams change. When a new team comes, they want to go over it again and make sure of what they will approve. Sometimes they add things that the team that was there before did not include, or they remove others. It’s a slow and tedious claim process. We have had to hire engineers to go with them to do the appraisal. It’s quite uphill,” Flores Ortega said.

Photo by Cristina Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

With losses surpassing $40,000, fisherman Antonio Torres of Humacao says that so far the only interest of the Department of Agriculture has been to offer painting the structures in the fishing village he leads.

Debate on the funds needed for the fishing sector

Of the Department of Agriculture’s 33 fisheries, 28 had private insurance coverage with the Multinational Insurance Company when Hurricanes Irma and María hit in 2017. Claims to FEMA for the 33 facilities totaled $14,179,050, according to Flores Ortega.

Of that amount, $6,005,391 corresponds to losses due to damage to structures and equipment. However, after insurance adjustments, the amount was set at $2,403,893 to be claimed from FEMA. According to Agriculture, to date it has received only $391,971 in FEMA funds for debris removal; that is, 16.9% of the total losses.

Juan Andrés Muñoz, FEMA’s External Affairs officer, said the agency currently has 10 projects in the works related to fisheries under Category E of the Public Assistance Program, under which permanent public projects are developed. He acknowledged, however, that so far “there have been no funds approved or required by FEMA” for these 10 projects but did not answer why.

FEMA confirmed that the total amount of funds projected for fisheries is estimated at $5,717,829 according to the initial evaluation of the projects, which represents $8.4 million less than the losses projected by Agriculture for the fishing sector post-Maria. When Flores Ortega was asked about this incongruity, he only said that one thing is the amount they claim, and another is what FEMA finally approves based on its inspections.

Once these funds are disbursed, another challenge is anticipated for their use, according to Flores Ortega, since there are fisheries that are closed due to the deterioration accrued after years of neglect, while some do not have active boards of directors, which means that the agency will have the task of identifying who would manage the funds to be distributed. Currently, 13 fisheries are closed and 13 are partially operating, the CPI found. The Secretary of Agriculture did not specify what steps the agency would take to help organize these fishermen boards.

Meanwhile, the president of the Federation of Fishermen and Defenders of the Sea (Fepdemar, in Spanish), Miguel Ortiz, told the CPI that prior to the pandemic, his organization had begun an effort to support the formation of several boards, so that fishermen of those areas were not at a disadvantage in the distribution of recovery funds.

Photo by Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez | Center for Investigative Journalism

On the left, Miguel Ortiz, president of Fepdemar.

Direct aid for fishermen also detained at the DNER

In April of this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved a proposal presented by the DNER in 2019 for the use of federal funds from the Fishery Disaster Assistance program allocated to assist the fishing industry in Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Irma and María hit in 2017.

Of the $9,791,123 approved in the first phase, the DNER proposed to allocate only $400,000 for direct assistance to fishermen. The agency hopes that NOAA will approve a second phase of the application that would grant another $1.6 million to serve the fishing industry and that could also benefit fishermen. For example, that second proposal includes considering a $300,000 allocation to repair boats, said Damaris Delgado, acting deputy secretary of the DNER’s Conservation and Investigations.

Since 2019, the fishing sector has been against proposals submitted by the DNER to NOAA. They claim that they were not included in drafting the project for the use of funds and that a greater amount should have been allocated to help them directly. Despite these complaints, the DNER kept the amount for individual losses that occurred in 2017 at $400,000.

If that figure is divided by the 900 fishermen registered at the time, each would receive just $400. However, this amount could fluctuate as the agency considers splitting the funds based on three commercial fishing categories: full-time, part-time, and charter fishermen. For that reason, Delgado could not specify how much of the funding would actually go to each fisherman.

“It wouldn’t be fair to pay the same amount to a person who only fishes once a week [versus] one who fishes full time,” Delgado said.

The agency opened the notice to request these funds on July 5, 2020 and the fishermen had only 30 days to complete the process, which consists of filling out a form and enrolling in the Treasury Department’s registry of government contractors. The fishermen also had to prove that they had a valid license in 2017 and that they had complied with providing statistics related to trips out to the sea and fishing, required by the DNER’s Fisheries Laboratory for that year.

Delgado explained that the notice was extended until August 14, because of 900 fishermen, only 345 requested the aid. He also said the fishermen had encountered problems with the applications, as some of them were duplicated. Fishermen could fill out the form online or send it by mail. “But some were doing both procedures” at the same time, the official acknowledged.

The DNER is evaluating the possibility of opening another round for the call, the agency’s Deputy Secretary Rafael Machargo Maldonado told the CPI, who was unable to establish when that new round would begin. He limited himself to saying that they are in talks with “fishermen’s associations to explore this possibility.”

That second round would further set back the disbursement of these funds, because, according to Delgado, the DNER must wait to have all the requests of the fishermen who qualify for the aid to be able to make the distribution of the $400,000, which must be used in a period no longer than four years, as of April 1, 2020.

“We don’t want to wait four years. We want to hand out the money as soon as possible. We had a fairly ambitious schedule, but as we have extended [the call for applications] we’re facing the challenge of keeping the same deadline,” said Delgado, who preferred not to reveal the date on which they expected to have completed the delivery of the funds.

The president of Fepdemar believes the low participation rate of fishermen responds to distrust over how the DNER has managed the process with NOAA.

“[The DNER] is forcing the fisherman to fill out the form. They will use those forms to say that the fishermen accepted the proposal without question. The reason we haven’t filled it out is because we’re being run over and because it is double-edged. They will use our signatures to tell NOAA that we agree. NOAA never clearly knew the fisherman’s problem with that proposal,” said Ortiz, who is president of the Pozuelofishery in Guayama, in the South, which is home to 19 members.

Ortiz claimed that they have not received clear guidelines on how to complete the application and the steps to register with the Treasury Department. “They think that fishermen are executives who are in an office; not everyone has the ability to print a letter or fill it out online. If it’s an aid, I don’t understand why I have to register with the Treasury,” the fisherman said.

Delgado differed from Ortiz’s statements saying that he asked the DNER Secretary to make the process as easy as possible waiving the requirement of   providing other documents that must usually be presented by government suppliers, such certifications of no-pending debts with the Municipal Revenues Collection Center (CRIM, in Spanish) and the Child Support Administration (ASUME, in Spanish), or certificates of good conduct issued by the Police Department, among others. He also said the agency distributed the printed applications in several fisheries — he didn’t say which — and that they received help from the University of Puerto Rico’s experimental stations for this process.

More than a year ago, Fepdemar and the Puerto Rico Fishermen’s Congress objected to the use of the combined $11.4 million of the two phases of the NOAA funds that the DNER would oversee. They even went to court so that the agency — at that time headed by former Secretary Tania Vázquez — would turn over a copy of the proposed use of the funds to the fishermen.

Photo by Cristina Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

The plan for NOAA funds was submitted more than a year ago.

Vázquez, who also headed the Environmental Quality Board, resigned on October 31, 2019 after it went public that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is investigating suspected irregularities in contracts that her agency allegedly awarded to companies related to the superintendent of the Capitol, José Jerón Muñiz Lasalle, to provide maintenance of flood control pumps.

The plan to use NOAA funds was unveiled in June 2019, when Vázquez was still running the agency. This proposal allocates funds to restore fish habitats, mitigate invasive species, and manage sargassum on the coasts, training fishermen and rehabilitating fisheries through the reconstruction of ramps and the installation of solar plants, among other projects. In April 2020, NOAA approved the use of funds for the projects proposed by the DNER. However, four months after that approval, the local agency does not know when it will start taking steps to carry out the projects, Delgado acknowledged. According to the official, the first request for proposals for one of the projects would be published in September, and she preferred not to reveal which one it would be.

Fishermen don’t trust Agriculture to distribute funds to mitigate losses due to COVID-19

Victor Lamb, from the Punta Tuna fishery in Maunabo, in the southeastern coast, was waiting until after Easter in April to close the fishery. Since 2017, there have been multiple challenges to operate in that town. This year, the fisherman said, the situation with COVID-19 has complicated work and sales.

During the hurricane, they lost a freezer, fish grinders, scuba tanks, the fish shop door and floor, pipes, power lines, and a boat. That scenario forced Lamb and the other three fishermen who remained in the village to stop using it. “I will put it in a freezer at home and sell the fish from there,” he said.

Fishermen in the southern region have been doubly affected by the earthquakes that have hit the area since the beginning of this year. Marcos Chacón Soto, spokesman for the Bahía Pueblofishery in Guánica, said that after the earthquakes this year, eight fishermen — of the 20 that made up the village — moved to other towns or went to the United States.

“COVID-19 and the quakes have hurt us. Sales have dropped significantly this year. I was closed from April to July. Now in August we’re working part time, like four hours a day, because there isn’t much inventory. Sales are also down because people aren’t visiting,” the fisherman explained.

With the hurricane, this fishery lost its dock. Although the fishermen made arrangements with Agriculture to repair it, Chacón Soto said the agency told them it did not have money for it. Among the fishermen and several businesses in the area they managed to collect $2,200 to rebuild the pier, and they immediately got down to work.

The president of Fepdemar agreed that the pandemic, coupled with the earthquakes that affected the southern part of Puerto Rico since the beginning of 2020, have caused a further drop in their product sales. In his case, he explained it is not a matter of a shortage of fish, but of customers.

“Fish sales are weak now. I have freezers full and I don’t have space to store all the fishermen’s catches. What’s more, what they bring is barely sold. It has been a few Sundays since I’ve opened because of the pandemic. But [other days] we’ve had to open because we have a lot of fish,” Ortiz said.

Roberto Silva, president of the Puerto Rico Fishermen Congress, agreed with him, saying the Department of Agriculture has not been proactive in learning about the challenges that fishermen face and that adds to the problems they have been dragging since 2017.

Both fishermen expressed concern about how Agriculture will manage a $1 million fund approved by NOAA to help fishermen affected by the pandemic. These are funds allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).

It was not until last Thursday that the fishermen finally had a meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture to discuss the management of these funds, Ortiz confirmed.

According to the official, the allocation of the aid due to losses related to the pandemic is estimated for October of this year. As with the funds administered by the DNER, the amount that each fisherman would receive could vary. In this case, it would range from $600 to $4,000, depending on whether they are fishing full- or part-time or are a charter fisherman.

Ortiz and Silva opposed this calculation and, during the meeting with the Secretary, they proposed that the base amount be increased from $600 to $800. “The Secretary put up resistance, but in the end he accepted that the amounts be readjusted,” said Ortiz, who is waiting for a second meeting with the agency, during which it will present the final funding proposal that will be sent to NOAA.

According to Flores Ortega, this fund would be destined to 975 fishermen registered in 2019.

While the Secretary said that in 2019, fisheries saw a relative stabilization after the damages caused by the hurricanes in 2017, which was still evident in 2018, the fishermen describe another reality.

“This uncertainty affects us in a very drastic way. In addition to the hurricanes in the area, we’ve been hit by the earthquakes and now the coronavirus. Fishing for this area decreased. They suffer significantly in Ponce, Guayanilla and Peñuelas, because they cannot sell their fish. It’s hard for the fishermen of the south. A lot of money was lost,” Ortiz said.

Several fishermen consulted by the CPI warned about the trouble with the fact that Agriculture uses as a reference the number of trips to the sea in 2019 to distribute funds, as they do not reflect the real situation of these workers. “Some have had to move to partial fishing because the hurricane damaged their boats,” said Ortiz, who stated that there are fishermen who would be at a disadvantage when requesting these funds this way because they have been unable to resume their work at the level they had before 2017.

Víctor Rodríguez Velázquez is a member of Report for America. Angélica Serrano Román contributed to this story.

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