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Funding resources available to hard-hit shellfish farming industry

Groton — The COVID-19 pandemic hit the shellfish farming industry hard, as demand plummeted with fewer people going to restaurants and ordering oysters, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said Tuesday.

Though an emerging area of Connecticut agriculture, shellfish farming was not initially eligible for the same federal governmental assistance provided to other sectors of the agriculture industry during the pandemic, he said.

Courtney, joined by government officials, highlighted at a press conference Tuesday at Mystic Oysters in Noank that critical support is now available for shellfish growers.

When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it included support for food producers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, but shellfish growers were excluded from receiving benefits under the first round of CFAP funding.

Jim Markow, co-owner of Mystic Oysters, and his colleagues advocated for the shellfish farming industry to be included in the program as it too is part of agriculture, while Courtney said he and the Connecticut delegation peppered the U.S. Department of Agriculture with letters. The delegation cited that Connecticut Sea Grant has determined that “Connecticut shellfish aquaculture has experienced a 93 percent loss in revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The USDA had maintained that funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under a separate provision of the CARES Act would take care of fishermen, Courtney said. But the amount allocated to Connecticut for the entire industry is $1.8 million, a much smaller pot of money. The start of the application period for that funding was announced last week.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that the second round of CFAP would include shellfish growers. The program “authorizes new, direct payments for Connecticut shellfish farmers that will help to cover from 8.8% to 10.6% of their total 2019 sales,” according to Courtney’s office.

Courtney said negotiations are ongoing for another COVID relief bill.

Courtney was joined at the press conference by representatives of Mystic Oysters and government officials, including Governor Ned Lamont; Mason Trumble, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; State Department of Agriculture Commissioner Bryan P. Hurlburt; and State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.

Markow said aquaculture has faced the misperception that it is not farming, because shellfish farmers are out on the water on boats and their crop is underwater. But in reality, the industry is just a different form of farming, and he also pointed out that it’s a great attribute to the environment.

Mystic Oysters, which started a pop-up farmstand on Fridays and Saturdays to sell oysters directly to customers after its business went to zero when the pandemic hit, also is trying to develop options to sell oysters in supermarkets, such as Oysters Rockefeller.

Hurlburt said aquaculture is a critically important industry for Long Island Sound and the economies around the Sound.

He said the NOAA funds are helpful, but wouldn’t have covered all the losses the small businesses have experienced during the pandemic. He said including aquaculture in the CFAP funding helps ensure aquaculture is put on parity as farming on land, and that’s critically important to make sure these aquaculture businesses have the same resources that are available to farms in the state.

He encouraged people in the aquaculture industry to apply for the CFAP funding and work with the DEEP on the NOAA funding.

Trumble said the marine fisheries industry is facing positive developments, such as improved water quality in Long Island Sound, but also the big challenge of a massive decrease in demand for seafood. He said he hopes the funding provides relief for the industry.

Lamont said oysters have been a longtime staple in Connecticut, and he said what lobsters are to Maine, oysters are to Connecticut and Long Island Sound. He said he knows the pandemic has hit the industry hard, but he said the funding is a “bridge to somewhere” for those in the industry.

k.drelich@theday.com

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