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Apalachicola Bay Declared A Disaster

Joins growing list of disaster areas.

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Apalachicola Bay Declared A Disaster

The growing list of fisheries disaster areas grew in August 2013 with the addition of Florida's oyster industry, blamed mostly on diminishing freshwater flow into Apalachicola Bay due to drought. Drought has been a problem in the area for several years.

According to many fishermen, the words "groundfish," "Massachusetts" and "warming ocean" are virtually interchangable with earlier disaster declarations.

Nearly a year after the state first asked for help, federal officials are declaring a fishery disaster for Florida's oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico.The collapse of the oyster industry last year came after a drought reduced freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay. But state officials have also blamed the lack of freshwater flow due to increased consumption in Georgia. The declaration by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker sets the stage for possible help from the federal government if Congress approves it. That aid could include economic assistance to fishing businesses and communities, including oystermen.

The Northeast, Alaska and Mississippi all joined the list last year, but budget talks couldn't get $150 million in disaster funds through for the fisheries because of Republican opposition. Congress' current opportunity to help troubled fishermen includes work done to vastly improve allocation of tariffs raised under the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act of 1954, also called the "Promotion of the free flow of domestically produced fishery products."

That should help because only a few years ago it was brought to everyone's attention that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been siphoning off these tariff funds for decades. But considering about 90 percent of the fish sold in the U.S. is imported. Congress has shot the industry in the foot for years and years The fact that it has been allowed to get like this is a testament to Congress' pure ineptness.

As stated in a report from the New Bedford Standard-Times report last year: "Over time, Congress began appropriating Saltonstall-Kennedy funds to NOAA for use in its operations. In 2010, the total duties collected on the imports of fishery products was $376.6 million, and, under the terms of the law, $113 million would have been secured for fisheries research and marketing. Instead, $104.6 million went to NOAA's operations budget, and only $8.4 million was used by NOAA for grants for fisheries research and development projects."

Over decades, the NOAA bureaucracy has taken a bigger and bigger bite of those funds, while fishermen have been left to fend for themselves. Those millions should have gone toward work like that done by UMass Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology to literally save from disaster the scallop fishery and all who benefit from its now sustainable operation. Had the money been going toward cooperative groundfishery research 15 or 20 years ago, toward industry-informed assessment programs and equipment development, groundfish fmight be dealing with some of the same problems, but it might also have been kept off the disaster list. Florida Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Steve Southerland now join the club of congressmen whose constituents have been deemed to deserve fisheries disaster relief, but who have yet to see it.

And now, three Republican members of Congress from Arizona — including its two senators — who were opposed to disaster funding last year when it was targeted for New York and New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy's wake have changed their tune after forest fires devastated their state. The House of Representatives still struggles with the influence of tea party Republicans who seem more like skinflints than conservatives, and the chances of seeing the Senate's solid effort to improve administration of Saltonstall-Kennedy seem slim indeed. Woe is us if the House can't see its way to support it until a majority of its membership knows firsthand what it means to have a disaster declaration.

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