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State's congressional delegation pushes for added shellfish industry relief

Connecticut’s congressional delegation is fighting for the state’s $30 million shellfish industry, with all seven members signing a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary to reconsider a decision to exclude shellfish farmers from receiving coronavirus relief aid from the USDA.

The USDA was allocated up to $16 billion earlier this year to deliver direct relief to farmers and ranchers impacted by the pandemic through a program known as the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP. But as of now, the USDA deemed shellfish farmers ineligible for that money, arguing that they instead would receive aid from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture extension specialist at Connecticut Sea Grant.

The state's representatives, which include U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, as well as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, have argued, however, that the $300 million allocated to NOAA to assist fisheries through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act is “relatively small” compared to the $16 billion the USDA may directly distribute to farmers. They argue shellfish farmers rightly deserve access to the USDA aid, as they, too, grow their own crops, albeit underwater.

“This decision puts the long-term survival of these farmers at risk,” the delegation wrote in its letter addressed to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “It is unfair to acknowledge shellfish as a crop that can receive assistance through some programs and exclude them from other assistance programs when there is no congressional directive to do so. Like other farmers, shellfish farms grow their crops from a seed, plant and harvest their crops, and use numerous farming practices to protect their crops.”

Of the $300 million NOAA will distribute to states with fisheries, Connecticut is set to receive just $1.83 million to disburse among its four fishing industries, which in addition to shellfish aquaculture include commercial fishing, charter and party boats and seafood wholesalers.

Only about $450,000 of that amount will be disbursed among the state’s 45 shellfish farming businesses of varying sizes come August, barely covering the more than $4 million the industry has lost since the pandemic shut down restaurants in March, state Department of Agriculture Commissioner Bryan Hurlburt, who also oversees the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture, estimated.

“This NOAA program does not fill that gap the industry has lost in revenue,” Hurlburt said. “The (Connecticut) industry has been tremendously resilient and innovative and they are doing a lot things to directly connect with consumers (throughout the pandemic). That (NOAA funding) helps make up the gap but it doesn’t close the gap,” hence the need for additional funds from the USDA.

According to the USDA website, as of Friday evening $5.3 billion of the $16 billion the department was allocated has been paid out to more than 365,000 farms and ranches throughout the United State. The department also announced Thursday a newly expanded list of commodities eligible to receive the aid but did not include shellfish, such as oysters and clams.

“It’s a decision based on pure ignorance,” Blumenthal said by phone Friday. “I have no idea what’s going through their minds, because clearly the shellfish farming industry is a form of agriculture that produces highly nutritious and wholesome food. I see no rational explanation for it and I’ve heard none.”

The Day was not able to reach the USDA for comment Friday.

Facing a loss in revenues

According to a survey by Connecticut Sea Grant, Connecticut shellfish aquaculture has experienced a 93% loss in revenue due to the pandemic between March and mid-May, when restaurants partially reopened. Since then, the state's shellfish farmers, who typically make 98% of their sales through wholesale deals to restaurants, have restored between 15% and 50% of their normal sales this time of year, Getchis said.

To supplement those losses, shellfish farmers have turned to direct-to-consumer marketing and sales tactics, and they have sought Economic Injury Disaster loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration, which must be paid back, and have received Payroll Protection Plans through the CARES Act to keep employees working.

For many shellfish farmers, however, these moves have not been enough to fully make up for lost sales. Both Tim Londregan of the Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm and Steve Plant of Connecticut Cultured Oysters in Noank told The Day this week they have been working seven-day weeks and using their savings to pay bills and support their families, despite their direct-to-consumer models taking off.

“Direct sales are an excellent opportunity but it will never move the volume we have cultivated in the state,” Getchis said. “We have very large companies. Our restaurants will open eventually, but we need those business to be there when they do open.”

“People need this money right now,” Getchis continued. “We are in a global pandemic that is unprecedented and they need to survive and they need to plan for the future. If they don’t have the money to do that, we are going to have a whole different picture on the other side of this.”

Receiving additional relief funds from the USDA that do not require repayment would be welcome, shellfish farmers told The Day, especially with a rising uncertainty the industry is facing as states around the country recently shut down restaurants, halting sales to those areas.

Such has been the case for Mystic Oysters owner Jim Markow, who described what's been a wildly fluctuating industry this summer after he said sales were “good” through the Fourth of July weekend but then suddenly dropped with the end of the holiday combined with restaurant closures.

Additional federal aid “would help right now because everything is up in the air,” Markow said. “Anything that is a direction of help is always welcome because the future is so unclear right now.”

Courtney, who said he has been advocating for Connecticut’s shellfish industry for years and who visited the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative on Friday to support its farmers, argued that preserving the industry now is paramount, describing the many positive effects the shellfish industry has had for the state. “This didn’t exist 12 years ago when I first came to Congress. It was just in its genesis,” he said. "Oysters have always been in Long Island Sound, but the notion of cultivating them is new. Looking at the local restaurants in the region, in my opinion, it’s been a real attraction for people to come to southeastern Connecticut to have fresh oysters.”

The industry “is just a great ecosystem in terms of having (the shellfish) locally grown and locally harvested and then sold locally to restaurants and grocery stores," he said. "It creates an economic multiplier effect but at the same time, it’s good for literally the ecosystem of the shoreline.”

Blumenthal, who said he is "passionate" about promoting the Connecticut shellfish industry, said, “It’s a form of agriculture. It deserves and needs support, particularly now. The pandemic has really struck the shellfish industry so painfully and deeply. I helped lead this effort because I am so impressed by the tremendous opportunity here. ... For me (the shellfish industry) is like citrus farming to Florida. It’s part of our state’s DNA and identity.”

Sen. Murphy, whose office drafted the letter to the USDA, was not available for comment this week.

“Our delegation is really strongly behind the industry,” Blumenthal said. “It may take more than a letter, but I will reach out to other officials in the USDA if necessary. It’s of paramount importance because (the industry) matters so much to the whole of our state.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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