Van Hollen, Cardin and Va. senators call for relief for oyster and clam businesses

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Workers in Cambridge, Maryland cull oysters ready for market at Choptank Oyster Co (J.F. Meils/Capital News Service.)

Maryland U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin joined Virginia U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner in calling on the USDA to send $16 billion in aid to oyster and clam farms along the Chesapeake Bay to help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the Democratic senators wrote that oyster and clam farms have had their supply chains disrupted by the pandemic as many restaurants and hospitality venues have been forced to close.

Nearly 70 percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. is consumed at such locations, they said.

“Restrictions on restaurant operations are especially damaging to Chesapeake Bay oyster farmers, many of whom are small, family-owned businesses,” the senators wrote. “As most sales and harvests of shellfish products occur in the spring, the inability to offload products have impacted shellfish growers’ ability to prepare operations for the next production season.”

They also said the USDA could buy Chesapeake Bay shellfish under the Agricultural Marketing Service, a program where the agency purchases domestically made food and distributes it to schools, food banks and communities in need.

“Market-ready shellfish, including oysters and clams, can be packaged into shelf-stable products that provide valuable nutrition to the American public,” the senators wrote.

A spokesperson with the USDA did not immediately return a request for comment.

The senators said $9.5 billion could be dispersed from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability (CARES) Act, and another $6.5 billion could come from the Commodity Credit Corporation, a government-owned entity that oversees agricultural prices and income.

A survey conducted by Virginia Tech University and Ohio State University from March 23-April 10 found that only 51 percent of respondents in the aquaculture and aquaponics industries said they could “maybe” survive the next three months without outside intervention.

Another 13 percent said they could not.

In the same survey, 80 percent of operators said they have had orders canceled by private businesses because of the pandemic.

In May, the Department of Commerce allocated $300 million in CARES Act funds to fisheries across the country, of which the Maryland seafood industry received $4.1 million.

According to state agencies, the seafood industry contributes $600 million to Maryland’s economy.

Van Hollen, Cardin, Warner and Kaine said in their letter to Perdue the industry has a $4.6 billion economic impact on the Chesapeake Bay region and supports more than 30,000 jobs.

Brandon Weigel

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