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Stimulus money OKd for hard-hit seafood industry

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

The COVID 19 monies that will soon be propelled into the nation’s hands include help for the seafood industry, which has been affected by closures in restaurants and bars.

In the $2 trillion third stimulus package, that brings financial relief to small businesses, including those in the fishing and seafood industries, the legislation includes $300 million specifically to assist U.S. workers in fisheries and aquaculture-related jobs.

It looks to be needed, and how it will be divvied up, sometime before it runs out in Sept. 2021, hasn’t been decided.

The epidemic certainly hasn’t been good for working oystermen, however many there are left, and for seafood dealers, who have a lot of customers in metropolitan areas, especially in the Southeast, that are now, or will be, affected.

“We are open and running routes but they’ve been cut back, to once a week,” said Stephanie Barber, owner of Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint. “We’re running pretty short, trucks are real light.

“We try to keep our customers and try to keep our workers,” she said.

Wholesale outlets, retail markets, are selling, but not restaurants. “There’s not a lot of shellfish moving,” Barber said.

The bay wasn’t long reopened after closure from rain and the river’s rise when social distancing rules and business closings put a stop to harvesters’ livelihood. “We’ve had to cut most of them,” she said. “We’re letting a few going here and there.

“All the sales fell off real bad,” Barber said. “We haven’t been taking in much at all, maybe one or two oystermen a day.”

When it comes to the farm-raised variety. Alligator Harbor aquaculture leaseholder Jeff Tilley, owner of Oyster Boss, a company that supplies and processes oysters and clams farmed by others, said he’s been hit, but not as gut-punched as you might think.

“We had an incredible week last week,” he told an official with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Commercial Services, which regulates the aquaculture industry.

“She was shaking in disbelief when I relayed the information,” Tilley said. “That person offered her observation that somehow we’re running among the few reporting something rosy.”

Tilley, who both farms and processes, cut off any purchase of outside sourced oysters. “We only brought our product through the pipeline. I don’t have room to buy oysters from third party vendors” he said. “And I unzipped the bottom of the bag on the pricing. They’re heavily discounted right now.”

Tilley offered his fellow oyster farmers access to his processing plant at no charge. “I’m available, we’ve had five different growers to process thousands of oysters.

“I’m encouraging them let’s all do this nice and legal,” he said. One farmer from Cedar Key drove his shellfish to the processing plant, in Sopchoppy.

The plant also has processed wild-caught oysters from Yankeetown, as it did prior to COVID-19.

“We have cultured and wild product, all from Florida,” Tilley said.

Tilley, who leases seven leases of the 62 leases in Alligator Harbor, farmed by about 40 fishers, said the coronavirus hasn’t prevented them from tending their leases.

“Everybody’s continuing to apply the labor on the water, the husbandry if you will,” he said. “How many are able to actually bring them out of harbor is limited right now.”

Tilley said he had has to discount oysters considerably, dropping the price from $85 a bag to $55, and that he has been hard pressed to keep up with what demand there is from retail outlets.

“We’re not selling to restaurants, we’re selling to fish houses,” he said, adding that outlets in Port St. Joe, Panacea and Tallahasse have been among his customers.

“We sold 4,000 oysters to a seafood wholesaler in Moultrie, Georgia,” Tilley said.

Still, it’s meant that the more than dozen fulltime employees Boss Oyster had working before the coronavirus struck the world, have now been cut back to eight.

“Basically we’re trying to come up with a way to keep the lights on and preserve the status quo of the oysters we bring off our leases,” said Tilley.

Money to go to ’fishery participants’

Details on how the stimulus money for fisheries will be spent are now being worked out.

“These industries provide more than a million jobs and contribute more than $60 billon to the U.S. gross domestic product,” said Robert C. Vandermark, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, in a statement applauding the legislation.

“Coastal communities around the U.S. are made up of family businesses that have provided local, fresh and sustainably-caught seafood for generations, and it is crucial that America’s long-standing fishing tradition continues to thrive after the COVID-19 crisis has passed,” he said, thanking Congress and the partners who worked to secure the financial support/

“We look forward to seeing these funds being swiftly disbursed to those within the fishing and seafood industries who have experienced hardship during these difficult times. In this period of uncertainty and sadness, it’s heartening to see all of us come together to support coastal communities, local businesses, and each other,” Vandermark said.

The law authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to provide assistance to Tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants affected by COVID–19, which may include direct relief payments.

The law defines ‘fishery participants’’ as encompassing Tribes, persons, fishing communities, aquaculture businesses not otherwise eligible for assistance under (other legislation), processors, or other fishery-related businesses, that have incurred economic revenue losses, directly or indirectly, from the pandemic.

These losses must either be greater than 35 percent as compared to the prior five-year average revenue; or have sustained any negative impacts to subsistence, cultural, or ceremonial fisheries.

The $300 million in funds may be rolled out within a fishing season, and are authorized to be available until Sept. 30, 2021. Up to 2 percent can go towards for administration and oversight.