New England Shellfish Growers Feel Snubbed by Red Tide Loan Program
BOSTON Like hundreds of aquaculturists, shellfish grower Barbara Austin has been out of work since earlier this month when the worst toxic algae bloom in more than three decades hit the New England coast and closed shellfishing areas in Massachusetts.
But unlike shellfishermen, Austin and nearly 300 other aquaculturists -- who harvest shellfish but don't fish for them -- are not eligible for low-interest federal loans to help them weather the red tide.
Austin, of Wellfleet, pursued a loan from the Small Business Administration before learning they're reserved for the state's roughly 1,500 shellfishermen. The state's 287 licensed aquaculturists, who plant and harvest shellfish, aren't eligible because the government considers them farmers, not fishermen.
"If they're going to make offers like this, they should have been clear about what they're really offering," Austin said Tuesday.
The Small Business Administration's enforcement of the rule excluding shellfish growers from eligibility for the loans was a surprise, said Mark Forest, district director for U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.
"Obviously, we are not pleased," he said. "We're working to get the problem fixed quickly."
Attempts to reach SBA regional director William Leggerio were not immediately successful.
The toxic algae bloom known as red tide extends from the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine to Massachusetts' Buzzards Bay. It is the worst red tide along the New England coast since 1972.
Toxins produced by the algae contaminate shellfish like clams and mussels, making them unsafe for people and animals to eat. But it is not a risk to people who eat lobsters, scallops and finned fish.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has declared a disaster in the Maine shellfish fishery due to the red tide outbreak, the state's congressional delegation said Wednesday. A similar finding has been made concerning Massachusetts.
Losses industrywide are estimated at $3 million a week.
Most shellfish beds shut down along the coast of Massachusetts will remain closed for at least four to five more weeks, state shellfish biologist Michael Hickey said.
He said the size and intensity of the algae bloom is dropping in waters off the North Shore and Cape Cod, but it could take two more weeks to completely disappear. After that, he said it would take two to three more weeks before shellfish beds can reopen.
On Tuesday, members of the state's congressional delegation sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns urging him to make emergency financial assistance available to aquaculturists and fish farmers alike in eight Massachusetts counties.
Also this week, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy sent a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown asking him to meet with the delegation, saying FEMA should coordinate a federal disaster relief effort.
On June 9, Gov. Mitt Romney declared a state of emergency and asked the SBA for disaster assistance for the shellfishing industry. Less than a week later, the SBA announced that it would offer loans of up to $1.5 million with a 4 percent interest rate.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press