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Senators: Expand Pandemic Aid for Seafood Industry

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Maryland's nascent oyster industry may not survive the pandemic, scientists say. (Chesapeake Bay Program)
Maryland's nascent oyster industry may not survive the pandemic, scientists say. (Chesapeake Bay Program)
 By Diane Bernard - Producer, Contact
May 13, 2020

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- With the U.S. seafood industry in an economic free fall during the pandemic, senators and advocacy groups are calling on Congress to help keep struggling fisheries from going under.

Restaurant and market shutdowns are hitting Maryland's Chesapeake Bay fishers particularly hard, according to Allison Colden, a fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She said Congress has allotted $300 million in aid to support the entire nation's fisheries. Maryland will receive only $4 million to bolster an industry that Colden said contributes more than $4 billion to the state's economy.

"Based on rough back-of-the-envelope calculations, that means that each individual in Maryland maybe would receive $1,000 or less," she said, "and we know that that's just not going to be sufficient to support this industry, which has been so important to Maryland's economy."

She said a bipartisan group of 25 senators from states with hard-hit seafood sectors, including Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., are urging Senate leaders to increase funding to $1 billion in the next pandemic relief bill.

The Senate letter stated that many of the nation's fisheries have suffered sales declines as high as 95% during the pandemic, which Colden noted puts thousands of family-owned and small fisheries at risk of bankruptcy. She said she's especially concerned about Maryland's oyster farm businesses, since many only have started in the past few years.

"For those younger businesses, where they have not yet had an opportunity to sell oysters or turn a profit of any kind, this could be really challenging," she said, "and we could, unfortunately, lose some of these businesses if further aid is not made available."

A new survey by Virginia Tech found that almost 85% of aquaculture businesses in the nation had sales losses in March and April. More than 60% of growers expected their businesses to go under this June, unless they get help.

The letter to the Senate is online at merkley.senate.gov, and the Virginia Tech report is at arec.vaes.vt.edu.

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