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Connecticut Sea Grant helps get loss protection for shellfish and seaweed farmers

By Peg Van Patten, Connecticut Sea Grant

Aquaculture farmers nationwide who grow crops in the ocean now have the same protection from loss due to natural disasters as their terrestrial counterparts, thanks to a recent change in a USDA program.  The program, administered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency, is the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, or NAP for short.  The change to the program adds shellfish grown directly on the ocean bottom, as is the practice in Long Island Sound, and crops grown on ropes underwater, such as mussels and seaweed.

Over about ten years, a diverse partnership that included state and federal agencies, Connecticut Sea Grant, industry representatives, and members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, worked with the USDA to broaden its recognition of aquaculture commodities to include farmed shellfish regardless of cultivation method. 

Until the change, 99% of the shellfish grown in Connecticut was ineligible for coverage because they were grown on leased beds rather than in bags or cages.  Crops grown on ropes were ineligible too. Some companies lost a significant percentage of their shellfish to storms Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012.

To obtain the coverage, farmers must pay $250 annually and provide five years of data showing typical harvest and losses. If more than 50 percent of a crop is destroyed in a tropical storm, hurricane or typhoon, then 55 percent of the market value of any crop losses can be recouped. 

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal held a press conference at University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus with other dignitaries and representatives from the U.S. Farm Bureau to announce the change. During the event he praised Sea Grant, government officials such as U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, and industry representatives for their cooperation in the decade-long effort.

“It’s a huge win for the industry,” said Tessa Getchis, Connecticut Sea Grant extension aquaculture educator.  Much of the credit for keeping the issue visible goes to Getchis, who worked tirelessly with the USDA Farm Bureau, industry members, policy makers, Connecticut Department of Agriculture, and others for more than ten years to help stakeholders bring this issue to the forefront. 

“Tessa proved to be a gentle pit bull,” said Connecticut Sea Grant director Sylvain DeGuise. “She bit hard on this issue, and wouldn’t let go until the right thing had been done for shellfish farmers.”

Growing seaweed on ropes is a growing industry in Connecticut and Maine, using technology developed by Dr. Charles Yarish’s Sea Grant supported research over the past 30 years.  Some Connecticut growers added seaweed to their crops after extreme weather events in recent years smothered their shellfish crops under 3 feet of mud. 

Robert Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said “Shellfish growing is inherently fraught with risk. While NAP insurance only covers a portion of weather-related crop loss, it could mean the difference between a farm’s bankruptcy or survival after a hurricane has wiped out someone’s crop.” He notes that the east coast shellfish aquaculture industry is worth over $135 million, produced on about 1,300 farms from Maine to Florida that collectively employ several thousand people.

“As a nation we learned decades ago that if we wanted to have an affordable dependable food supply, we needed to help farmers survive extreme weather events such as droughts or floods, hail storms or tornadoes.” Rheault said. “It only makes sense that shellfish farmers should be able to purchase affordable coverage for their crops just like those who farm on land.”

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