The pool of federal funds for commercial fishermen in Puerto Rico increased, but the money has scarcely reached its main recipients.
In June, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Ramón González Beiró, announced the availability of almost $3 million in federal funds for commercial fishermen affected by the pandemic.
“We have a commitment to our fishermen and the resources will be at their disposal,” the official said in a press release.
However, the disbursement of the $11.4 million assigned after the passage of Hurricanes Irma and María has trickled in. In four years, Agriculture has disbursed only 4% to fishermen, or about $459,139, according to the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency’s website.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded these funds to the Department of Agriculture.
In 2020, that federal agency had already allocated almost $1 million to Agriculture that benefited 687 fishermen, said Ricardo Rivera, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Fisheries Program. They each received between $640 to $1,400. A total of 711 fishermen applied for the funds, which NOAA made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act).
Because there was a surplus, NOAA authorized $510 to be distributed to each of those qualified in the first round, Rivera said. There was a third round, in which $97 was disbursed to the same group.
The funds disbursement was done according to three scales that depended on the number of outings to the sea that the fisherman made during the year; the more outings completed, the higher the aid amount.
Nelson Pimentel, a native fisherman from Vieques and spokesman for the Puerto Rico Federation of Fishermen and Defenders of the Sea, said this system was unfair.
“If it’s an incentive for economic loss, why are you going to marginalize a sector that perhaps could not go out [to fish]?” Pimentel pointed out.
The spokesman compared how the funds were managed in Puerto Rico versus the US Virgin Islands, noting that the neighboring jurisdiction did not set the same requirements and allocated them equally to each applicant.
However, Rivera confirmed that the Department of Agriculture will distribute the recent allocation of almost $3 million in the same way, through scales according to fishing trips made in 2020.
María money appears five years later
Regarding the recovery funds, Miguel Ortiz, president of the Puerto Rico Federation of Fishermen and Defenders of the Sea, told the Center for Investigative Journalism that, after five years full of complications, he has been one of the few fishermen to get the money to repair his fishing village after Hurricanes Irma and María.
“My village was supposedly the first,” Ortiz said, emphasizing the delay.
This year, the Department of Agriculture awarded him $383,000 for restoration work on his Punta Pozuelo fishing village in Guayama.
Given the delay and complications in the disbursement of federal funds to the fisheries, Agriculture Secretary González Beiró’s statements that they have a commitment to the fishermen has earned a “Misleading” verdict because it’s a partially confirmed assertion that shows some degree of manipulation in the information.