Wilbur Ross approves fishery disaster declarations as key senator calls for changes to process

Published on
September 26, 2019

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced on Wednesday, 25 September, that he approved disaster declarations for Gulf of Mexico states due to the extreme flooding that hit the Mississippi River basin earlier this year.

In the same statement, Ross announced disasters were also declared for multiple fisheries in Alaska, California, Georgia, and South Carolina. Those disasters occurred between 2017 and earlier this year.

“Fishing is the cornerstone of countless coastal economies and has been a way of life for generations of Americans,” Ross said in a statement. “This determination acknowledges the critical role fisheries play in our communities, and the risks they face from natural disasters and other causes beyond their control.”

The declarations make the affected fisheries eligible for federal funding. For the 2019 fiscal year, which ends on Monday, 30 September, Congress earmarked USD 165 million (EUR 150.9 million) for fishery disasters. Commerce officials will determine the award given for each disaster.

The Gulf disaster declaration applies to several fisheries in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The governor in each state appealed to Ross earlier this year after floods along the Mississippi River brought an inordinate amount of freshwater downstream. The historic flooding caused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which diverted the water directly into the areas where fishermen harvest crabs, oysters, and shrimp.

Ryan Bradley, director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, said in a statement his organization was happy to see the request approved so quickly.

“However, the fight for funding relief continues,” he added. “We now have to make sure that all fishermen and businesses that have been adversely impacted by the disaster can receive timely direct financial assistance and relief that they so desperately need to keep their businesses afloat. We call on our state leaders to support a spending plan that includes direct payments to those who have been adversely affected. This type of direct relief is critical to help our coastal communities recover."

The Ross declaration came on the same day U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) called for reforms to the disaster application process, which she said has become more burdensome. As such fishermen and communities have received less funding and waited longer to receive it.

In addition, in a 2016 coho salmon fishery disaster ruling, the Trump administration excluded charters from the ruling, which Cantwell said meant the state did not get the funding it needed to truly recover.

“Charter fisherman, in my opinion, are just small business owners who navigate the waters and recreate and take our constituents out for wonderful activities,” Cantwell said in her opening statement of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing. “I am concerned that the charter fishermen have not been treated fairly, and that’s why I plan to work with [U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi] on bipartisan measures that help ensure that small business charter fisherman are mandated into the Disaster Relief Recovery Act so they do receive adequate funding.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore

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