New bill by Rep. Jared Huffman seeks to accelerate federal disaster aid to fishing communities
North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman is among several coastal representatives pushing bipartisan legislation to speed up federal relief for people affected by fishery disasters.
Provoked in part by delays like the one that held up disaster aid to commercial crabbers for more than three years after a toxic algae bloom shut down the fishery for much of the 2015-16 season, the new bill would establish a timeline for the U.S. Department of Commerce to act on fishery disaster requests and funnel money to those affected.
“Across the country, fishermen, tribes and coastal communities depend on productive fisheries. However, far too many suffer while waiting for federal relief after unexpected disasters,” Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in a news release. “On the North Coast of California, we’ve seen how ocean heat waves, domoic acid blooms and drought have led to devastating consequences for our most important fisheries. As climate change impacts increase, it is more important than ever that we make sure fishing communities are as resilient as possible.
“That means ensuring the federal disaster relief process is implemented efficiently, and making sure funds are provided in a timely manner to those impacted by a fishery disaster. This bill will help make federal agencies more responsive to communities who have suffered a fishery disaster, while we continue to work in Congress to deliver the needed funds,” Huffman said.
Huffman and Mississippi Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo introduced the bill, H.R. 5548, in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. It is formally known as the Fishery FUNDD Act, short for the Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act.
Similar legislation was passed last year in the Senate and authored by another lawmaker from Mississippi, where the release of river floodwaters into the saltwater Mississippi Sound last year devastated seafood fisheries.
“While Mississippi’s federal fisheries disaster declaration was approved within several months, this is unfortunately not the case for other communities around the nation. The Fishery FUNDD Act will streamline what has been a yearslong process into a transparent system that will provide disaster relief to fishermen who have experienced harsh conditions out of their control,” Palazzo said.
The opening of the 2015-16 California Dungeness crab season was delayed an unprecedented 4½ months because of a massive toxic algae bloom that occurred during an unusual and persistent period of warm ocean conditions.
The North Coast commercial fleet lost the lucrative winter holiday market, which includes Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, substantially cutting into landings. The state’s smaller rock crab fishery suffered, as well.
While the scope of the disaster was quickly evident, it wasn’t until last summer that $22.8 million in direct aid made its way to crabbers and seafood processors affected by the shutdown.
It took 13 months for Congress to appropriate aid after the fishery disaster had been declared and nearly 1½ years beyond that before relief was disbursed.
In addition to clarifying the considerations for determining a disaster and better specifying eligible uses for disaster funds, the new bill would establish a 120-day timeline for the commerce secretary to evaluate a disaster request and a 90-day timeline for disbursal of appropriated funds after completed allocation plans are submitted.
Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the bill had good prospects for passage, given its bipartisan support and the inclusion of input from the Department of Commerce. The measure recognizes the need for greater efficiency and specificity in the fishery disaster process, he said.
“This is the consensus approach, and it handles the issue appropriately,” Oppenheim said.
He said the process for requesting and declaring fishery disasters has always been complex, made more complicated by the rather vague provisions that currently govern the administration of fishery disasters. Congress also must be persuaded to appropriate funds for disbursal.
“It’s just taken longer to deliver funds in recent years - a particularly pressing issue given the increase in number and frequency with which disasters have occurred, Oppenheim said.
“The majority of fishery disasters declarations, most of the disaster funds appropriated, have come in the past two decades,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.