By: Jeremy Alford – Capitol Correspondent – dailycomet.com
BATON ROUGE — From new federal programs for aquaculture to an upstart business model for oyster harvesters and surprising data on imported catfish, there was no shortage of gains this week for commercial seafood interests.
For starters, small aquaculture businesses — oysters, crawfish and the like — are now eligible for special loans from the federal government.
More specifically, portions of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 are going on the books, including an Economic Injury Disaster Loan program known as EIDL.
In the 1980s, Congress repealed Small Business Administration disaster assistance for all agricultural businesses.
SBA was prohibited from providing assistance to these industries as it was assumed that they would always be covered by other federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, recent Gulf Coast disasters have demonstrated gaps between USDA and SBA disaster assistance, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
For example, in 2005 south Louisiana was hit hard by both hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Aquaculture businesses, meaning many crawfish farmers or those with fish farms, were ineligible for both USDA disaster assistance and SBA disaster loans.
More recently, oyster farmers were ineligible for the EIDL program following the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
“Disasters can and will strike at any moment,” Landrieu said. “We must ensure that the federal government is better prepared and has the tools necessary to respond quickly and effectively following a disaster.”
She added that this “common-sense fix,” included in the jobs act bill, will clear up federal law to now give small aquaculture businesses a lifeline if they are hit by a disaster.
“Never again will they be told they are ‘too agricultural’ for SBA and ‘not agricultural enough’ for USDA,” Landrieu said. “Louisiana businesses know too well the bureaucracies that stand in the way when disaster strikes, and this clarification puts the SBA in a better position to support them in the future.”
In related aquaculture news, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries unveiled a new oyster farming initiative Wednesday that is flourishing in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
A collaboration between researchers from Louisiana State University and Auburn University, it focuses on off-bottom oyster culture to supplement the traditional harvest.
Historically, oysters are grown on and harvested from reefs on the water bottom. In this new process, oysters are grown suspended in the water column.
Benefits of this new oyster farming technique include increased productivity, job creation and continued production of a safe, sustainable domestic oyster supply, according to John Supan, an oyster specialist with Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter, and Bill Walton, Auburn University aquaculture and fisheries specialist.
Off-bottom culture also protects oysters from predators, provides a means to reduce fouling and allows complete harvests of planted oyster seed, a major advantage over traditional oyster harvesting.
LDWF’s Fisheries Research Laboratory in Grand Isle provides research and hatchery space to researchers from the Louisiana Sea Grant program.
Department officials are also working with local officials in Plaquemines Parish to develop plans for a facility, which would provide space for oyster spat to develop before they are utilized by industry.
“This could be an important addition to a traditional coastal industry,” Walton said. “It’s clean, green and energy efficient. And it provides business opportunities to those already in the oyster industry as well as other coastal residents.”
A series of workshops are being planned for 2011 and 2012. They will address issues such as appropriate culture systems, oyster seed stock, growing market-quality oysters and developing practices and regulations in collaboration with state agencies.
Finally, there’s new data out this week on the safety of seafood from overseas.
According to an investigation broadcast by the NBC Today Show Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system for imported seafood is so weak that many Americans are eating foreign catfish and other seafood tainted with chemicals that could cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems.
NBC aired video showing “dirty sewage water used to raise seafood in Vietnam — the fish pumped with toxic antibiotics and banned drugs just to keep them alive, boosting production and driving down costs.”
It also reported that although 80 percent of the fish consumed in America is raised overseas, the FDA inspects only two percent of all imports.
The U.S. Congress approved legislation almost 2 1/2 years ago that would provide much greater protection for American consumers by shifting inspection and regulation of catfish from the FDA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has more stringent inspection and safety programs.
The Obama administration has yet to enforce the new protections.
“The administration’s refusal to act is all the more shocking because of President Obama’s repeated claims that consumer safety is one of the highest priorities of his administration,” said Joey Lowery, president of the Catfish Farmers of America. “The U.S. catfish industry welcomes these tougher standards and protections which would apply to all catfish — domestic and foreign.”
Regional seafood groups like the Southern Shrimp Alliance and the Louisiana Shrimp Association have long sought stricter testing and regulation of foreign, farm-raised shrimp.
View the full NBC Today Show news investigation at this link: