Commercial fishermen across the Keys are still trying to get on their feet from Irma as they continue to wait for recovery funds for lost harvest and gear. Due to a blip in the application process and mailing, they may have to wait a while longer.

In February 2018, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross declared a fisheries management disaster in Florida and allocated $44,608,039 to help fishermen recover from Hurricane Irma. Congress approved the declaration in July 2019, and FWC was charged with developing and executing a spending plan and distribution of the funds.

Funds distributed include payments for commercial lobster fishermen for lost and damaged trap gear; commercial fishermen across the state for lost harvest (all qualifying Saltwater Product License (SPL) holders); commercial fish houses for lost harvest; and commercial fish houses and wholesale dealers for uninsured damage to infrastructure and installation of redundant power systems.

In September and October 2019, over two years after Irma hit the Keys, commercial fishermen finally began to see some funds flowing.

For phase 1, payment for lost and damaged lobster trap gear, 416 applications were mailed out. Only 273 applications were returned in the response timeframe with claims for 333,083 lost/damaged traps; all these applicants have been paid out at a per-trap rate of $10.16.

Bill Kelly, director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association and one of the local fishermen who worked with FWC to develop the spending plan for the Hurricane Irma Fisheries Disaster grant, said the delay was “not good,” but added, “Here we are, over 2 years since Irma, and at least finally some checks were mailed out.”

But what about the other 143 applicants whom FWC never heard from? Since the applications were not sent certified mail/return receipt requested, FWC cannot determine whether the unaccounted-for applications were ever received. As such, FWC has elected to resend the application to the 143 non-respondents. They will hopefully receive funding from a 10% set-aside from the original funds ($371,000).

Phase 2 is where things again got a little trickier. $9,995,171 was set aside for repayments for lost harvest to SPL holders. The deadline to apply was Oct. 31, and many fishermen did apply. So what happened? The state recently announced an “internal application process error,” nullified the original application and required 2,000 new, updated applications to be mailed out to all commercial fishermen who are SPL holders, restarting the entire application process.

Justin Bruland
Justin Bruland is a commercial fisherman in Marathon.

Keys Weekly caught up with Justin Bruland, president of Organized Fishermen of Florida. Bruland explained a little further, “Basically, the date that was supposed to be used was not. There were also problems with how fishermen’s income was being measured. We voiced our opinion about all this, and I hope that’s why they’re revising the entire thing.”

Bruland is one of several fishermen who were caught up in the phase 2 “process error.” He explains, describing how his “lost harvest” was miscalculated. The original formula compares the hurricane year harvest using number of traps held against the average landings for the prior 3 years. Bruland had bought more lobster traps just before Irma, and this increase in trap numbers made it seem like he made more despite Irma than in previous years, entitling him to less payout because his “harvest loss” appears lower. Bruland explained how someone who sold their gear during the Irma harvest year would show less income, inadvertently entitling them to more payout money for “loss income.” Additionally, Bruland pointed out that someone who had just gotten into the fishery would have no back years income to offset their hurricane-year earnings. He added, “None of this was taken into consideration.”

There was also an issue with when lost harvest was calculated. Bruland said, “They were meant to start measuring as of Sept. 10, but they used July 1 instead. Looking at it like this, with extra months of earnings factored in, they said we didn’t lose that much due to Irma.”

Finally, there was also an issue with who qualified for lost harvest payouts. Like many other fishermen, Bruland and his father fish for lobster, stone crab and several other species throughout the year. Stone crab fishermen didn’t qualify for payouts since Irma hit before the season was open. However, in calculating income during the Hurricane year, stone crab landings were still factored into calculations, which made losses seem smaller than they actually were.

“I lost $45,000 in lobster harvest compared to my previous year, and they told me I do not qualify,” said Bruland. “It boils down to the fact that I increased stone crab by nearly double of the year before Irma just to make it. For them, that showed that I’d clearly made up my money, but they didn’t factor in my expenses in doubling that business. I didn’t even get to apply for the payout.”

The sum total of the how, when, and who discrepancies in this phase 2 application led Bruland and other frustrated fishermen to meet with FWC Commissioner Robert Spottswood in Key West. “Initially, they didn’t want to hear our complaints because they wanted to get the money out, but if stone crab fishermen are not eligible for payout, why do those landings count against them in terms of income?” Bruland asked. “It just didn’t seem right or fair.”

FWC appears to have heard some of their cries, which has led to this reapplication process. “We got this whole process halted,” says Bruland. “I have $45,000 loss, so I should qualify for something. We’re all waiting to see what they come up with. We’re still waiting.”

Kelly confirmed these errors in the initial phase 2 application in dates and calculations of lost harvest led to the state’s decision to develop a new application and to restart the process.

The new applications for phase 2 payouts are being mailed out this month. Funds are anticipated to start flowing in late December 2019 or early 2020. Devin Resko, FWC’s Hurricane Irma fisheries grant coordinator, apologized. “We understand that this is a huge inconvenience to these fishermen. I’ve been fielding hundreds of calls, apologizing for this, and will continue to do so until we’ve fixed the issue.”

SPL holders who do not receive a new phase 2 payout application in November can reach out to Resko at 850-487-0554 or by emailing [email protected] and including their SPL(s) in the email body.

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