Maine fishermen rank first in the U.S. for payouts from a federal program intended to offset the impact of retaliatory tariffs on American seafood exports, according to a top official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Seafood Trade Relief Program, launched in September, pays fishermen up to $250,000 apiece based on qualified average landings of seafood commodities in 2019, including lobster, that were impacted by trade disruptions from America’s trade wars with China and other countries.

Almost $530 million was available to fishermen, with a Dec. 14 application deadline. As of Nov. 23, just about 5,100 applications worth $123 million had been paid out, according to the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

Maine lobstermen were paid $36 million as of early November, according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office. The total amount available to lobstermen in Maine, based on landings, would be $50 million.

The Farm Service Agency would not provide detailed information on the payouts and reimbursement rates to Maine because the data “was not readily available.”

Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce said the amount of money available was based on an agency estimate, but it was not sure what demand it could expect.

“If you look at the number of applications approved and paid, Maine is number one by a pretty long stretch; Alaska comes in number two,” Fordyce said.

“Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect. These are not the producers we typically work with,” he added. “For us to be administrating this is a little different. We had a bit of a learning curve and participants had a bit of a learning curve.”

The Trump administration program has been criticized by Maine lobster dealers and exporters, who spent years developing a market in China and were severely disrupted when parts of their business evaporated because of heavy tariffs by that country in retaliation for U.S. levies on other trade items.

Last year Maine lobstermen landed 100.7 million pounds of lobster, the lowest in nine years, but the price per pound paid to fishermen was $4.82, the highest price on record.

Fordyce could not explain why dealers and exporters were excluded from the relief program, except to say that the Farm Service Agency typically deals directly with farmers.

“Our systems are really designed to deal with the producer. Our definition of the producer is the lobstermen or the fishermen. I think we understood a little bit about the impact to the dealers or the exporters. It is difficult for us to engage at that level,” he said.

“This program was discretionary; it really came from the president and onto the secretary of agriculture to do something to help the industry.” Based on how little demand there has been for the funding nationwide so far, it may be extended but will be a one-time program, Fordyce added.

If money remains after the program expires, Maine lobster dealers hope it can be repurposed to aid their industry, which is still struggling to compete against Canadian lobster despite improved export conditions in China and the European Union.

“If we continue to have market access issues in foreign markets that are especially valuable for our products, like China, and there is some mechanism in the U.S. to provide support to thoseĀ  businesses, the U.S. needs to allocate those resources appropriately,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association.

Maine seafood dealers aren’t the only ones hurting, Tselikis added. Major West Coast fish processors have also been harmed by Chinese tariffs and were not given relief through the fishermen payout program.

“To have zero support going to the business sector that built that market is just not fair,” Tselikis said. “It is very frustrating. We do absolutely hope there is some way to support the industry in a bigger way.”

Fishermen still have a little more than two weeks to apply for aid from the program, which covers lobster but also other Maine seafood such as flounder, pollock, herring and tuna. Potential applicants can contact the state’s Farm Service Agency or the Department of Marine Resources.

A lot of Maine lobstermen took advantage of the program because it was targeted at them by the Trump administration, but many other fishermen may not know it is available, said Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

“There has just been some confusion about who can apply for what based on what types of metrics and business impacts,” Martens said. “It was really billed towards lobstermen; there are others in Maine who can also apply and should consider doing so.”

With a tumultuous presidential election, deadly pandemic and everyday concerns, the program may have gone unnoticed by some fishermen who could fall through the cracks, Martens added. He hopes the program is extended to give everyone eligible a shot at funding.

“I think there are a lot of fishermen at the end of the day that could realize they missed an opportunity because they didn’t know it was there,” he said.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3 p.m. on Nov. 30, 2020, to correct the timeframe of average seafood landings used to determine the payouts.

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