US lawmakers pushing for USD 19 billion relief program to help aquaculture sector

Published on
April 22, 2020

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a USD 19 billion (EUR 17.6 billion) relief program to give “critical support” for farmers and ranchers to ensure the integrity of the country’s food chain during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a White House briefing on Friday, 17 April, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the money will be split among two programs, with USD 16 billion (EUR 14.8 billion) earmarked for direct payments to farmers and ranchers. The USDA will use the remainder to purchase fresh products that the agency will distribute to food banks across the country.

“Having to dump milk or plow under vegetables ready to market is not only financially distressing, but it’s heartbreaking as well to those who produce them,” Perdue said last week. “This program will not only provide direct financial relief to our farmers and ranchers …  but will allow for the purchase and distribution of our agricultural abundance in this country to help our fellow Americans in need.”

It’s uncertain what impact, if any, the program will have on aquaculture interests. When asked for comment earlier in the week, a USDA spokesperson told SeafoodSource via email that the department built the program from scratch in a short time period, and evaluated the impact the coronavirus had on various food sectors across the country.

“This is intended to be an inclusive program and more information will be provided in the rulemaking. As we implement and get applications, we will continue to evaluate impacts and work with Congress as more resources are needed,” the spokesperson said.

Since Congress passed the USD 2.2 trillion (EUR 2 trillion) CARES Act, which provided the funding for the USDA initiative, lawmakers from seafood-producing states have been urging Perdue to include fisheries in any relief package it put together, including the Section 32 program that purchases surplus goods for children’s nutrition and disaster relief programs.

Massachusetts lawmakers sent a letter to Perdue on 2 April. Since then, representatives and senators from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have made similar requests.  Last week, U.S. Sens. John Boozman (R-Arkansas), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi), and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) sent Perdue a letter and urged him to consider the plight of catfish farmers.

“Approximately 60 percent of catfish processor sales go to foodservice dining establishments,” the foursome wrote. “Foodservice sales are down more than 65 percent across all seafood sectors because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Fish inventories continue to build, which is creating significant cash-flow challenges for processors and depressed prices for producers.”

Two weeks ago, Louisiana lawmakers asked Perdue to aid crawfish farmers, who have also been affected by the lack of restaurant business due to dining establishments being forced to close their dining rooms and limit sales to takeout only. Crawfish prices have dropped and farmers face losing, on average, more than USD 400 (EUR 370) per acre by the end of the season.

Crawfish farming is a USD 305 million (EUR 282 million) industry in the state, according to U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy (R) and John Kennedy (R). The senators were joined by U.S. Reps. Steve Scalise (R), Ralph Abraham (R), Garret Graves (R), Clay Higgins (R), Mike Johnson (R) and Cedric Richmond (D).

Photo courtesy of Charles Pittaluga/Shutterstock

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