US shellfish farmers could get relief from insurance requirements under new bill

Published on
March 5, 2018

A bill designed to exempt shellfish aquaculture workers from having to carry multiple forms of insurance has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives.

In mid-February, U.S. Rep.Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina) introduced H.R. 5061, the Shellfish Aquaculture Improvement Act of 2018

The shellfish aquaculture industry, which is responsible for an estimated annual production value of USD 500 million (EUR 406 million) annually, is the fastest-growing sector of agriculture in the U.S. However, insurance requirements placed upon it are redundant and costly, Sanford said.

Shellfish aquaculture is a near-shore, water-dependent, farming operation that is normally conducted solely within state waters. Congress recognized this and specifically excluded aquaculture workers from carrying insurance required under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, according to Sanford. But shellfish aquaculture workers are still required to be insured under the Merchant Marine Act, Sanford said.

“When the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 passed Congress, the aquaculture industry didn’t even exist. Indeed, when drafted, the Act was intended to support a robust U.S. maritime industry that could augment the U.S. Navy, if needed,” Sanford said. “Yet the same rules and regulations drafted about a century ago still apply today to an oyster farmer on a 14-foot skiff. This bill will help local shellfish farmers…as their industry and the demand for their oysters continues to grow.” 

Oyster production along the U.S. East Coast has doubled in the past five years, according to Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. But the high cost of insurance has hindered the industry’s growth, he said. who praised the proposed legislation.

“The Merchant Marine Act was never intended to apply to aquaculture workers in state waters,” Rheault said. “By clarifying our status, this act will allow thousands of shellfish farmers to protect their workers with affordable state workers' compensation coverage, saving them thousands each year,” 

Frank Roberts, of Lady’s Island Oyster Company in Seabrook, South Carolina, said the bill will bring relief to his company and other small businesses in the aquaculture sector, which often operate on tight margins.

“This bill provides relief from a huge financial burden felt along our inshore working waterfronts, particularly for South Carolina and our emerging oyster and clam industry,” Roberts said. 

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