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Courtney Presses USDA and U.S. Commerce Secretaries to Provide CFAP or Other Additional Assistance to Eastern Connecticut Shellfish Farmers

June 15, 2020
Press Release

NORWICH, CT – Today, Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-02), co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Dairy Caucus, released a letter he wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross requesting immediate assistance for aquaculture producers in Connecticut to access new funding through the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), or other additional funds through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). CFAP was authorized by Congress through the bipartisan CARES Act (H.R. 748) to help compensate farmers for losses that occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On May 19th, USDA released guidance for farmers to apply for economic relief through CFAP.  The aquaculture sector, which includes the farming of fish, mollusks, crustaceans, algae, and more, was not included in USDA’s initial guidance, although USDA Secretary Perdue noted at the time that they were being reviewed for further assistance. Since then, USDA has failed to make aquaculture producers eligible for CFAP, and at present, shellfish farmers are only eligible for direct federal assistance through NOAA. Additionally, despite the unprecedented losses in this industry due to COVID-19, assistance through NOAA represents only a small fraction of the overall need for this sector, and pales in comparison to what other states received from NOAA during the pandemic.  

Courtney also noted his concern regarding the lack of shellfish in new and existing food purchase and donation programs at USDA, like the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Specifically, he wrote: 

“As you know, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) allows agricultural producers to apply for direct payments to offset impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. To be eligible for CFAP, agricultural producers must have suffered a 5% or greater price decline between mid- January and mid-April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately […] it is now clear that privately owned aquaculture businesses growing products in state or federal marine waters (including all molluscan shellfish and marine algae) will not be covered through CFAP, and instead will only be permitted to receive assistance through the Department of Commerce’s $300 million in fisheries assistance. […] I remain concerned as to why ocean-farmed shellfish were excluded from CFAP, and additionally, as to the NOAA formula for providing these funds to the eligible entities, given that the amount of NOAA assistance to Connecticut is far below the scope of the overall need. 

“Connecticut will receive approximately $1.8 million in total funds from NOAA under this program, which will be divided between commercial fishing, shellfish, wholesale, and recreational fishing. After these resources have been distributed, the entire shellfish industry in Connecticut will receive approximately $450,000 in assistance, which will be spread very thinly throughout our state’s $30 million aquaculture industry. Only three states and three U.S. territories received fewer funds from NOAA than Connecticut. 

“The formula that NOAA has utilized to distribute these funds has been opaque and puts Connecticut’s shellfish industry in real financial jeopardy. I also remain concerned about new and existing food purchase and donation programs at USDA that fail to include shellfish, despite the significant losses to the industry. Specifically, USDA has failed to include shellfish in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, including shelf-stable canned products. During a recent call with USDA staff, the House Education & Labor Committee, and the House Agricultural Committee, my staff asked a question about why aquaculture was not included in the Farmers to Families Food Boxes program. My staff was informed that purchasing seafood was simply not something that the agency typically did. Given that shellfish aquaculture has been one of the hardest-hit industries during this economic and public health crisis, this response is unacceptable. 

“Nationally, the molluscan shellfish industry has had losses greater than 90% in sales and contracts. Additionally, due to restaurant closures in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts to stem the spread of COVID-19, there was a near halt in aquaculture sales throughout Connecticut over the past several months. In my state, the average reduction in revenue in 2020 after COVID-19 restrictions were put in place was 93%, compared to 2019. Additionally, more than 70% of the Connecticut aquaculture workforce has been laid off during this time. Given the dire need for this assistance and the failure of current programs to meet this need, I have several requests. 

1. How do USDA and NOAA plan to help the shellfish industry moving forward?
2. What is the rationale that USDA used to determine that certain freshwater producers would be eligible for CFAP but that saltwater shellfish producers would not be eligible?
3. What formula did NOAA utilize to distribute the $300 million in funds to local communities? 

“[…] Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.”

USDA’s CFAP program was created through the bipartisan CARES Act, which Rep. Courtney voted to pass on March 27th.  Courtney noted at the time that eastern Connecticut shellfish farmers and others deserves CFAP assistance, and stated that he would “pursue that assistance for them as aggressively as possible.” 

To read Rep. Courtney’s full letter to Secretary Ross and Secretary Perdue, click here