By Amanda Flitter
Gov. Deval Patrick has asked the U.S. Department of Commerce to declare a commercial fishery failure, through a declaration that would make the industry eligible for federal disaster assistance, according to statements from the governor's office yesterday.
If the request is approved, it will open the way for the U.S. Congress to give money to Massachusetts fishermen affected by this year's closures due to red tide algae.
Industry officials have estimated that the closures cost shellfish harvesters more than $1.5 million in lost revenue, and the total impact on the shellfish industry could reach $7 million.
Between April and July, more than 600,000 acres of offshore clam beds and shellfish areas on Cape Cod, the North and South shores, and Boston Harbor were closed at various times due to red tide.
"The closures have caused economic impact on certain Massachusetts communities where shellfishing is a major component of annual income for some fishermen," Gov. Patrick wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez. "This disaster assistance is requested to help sustain shellfish fishing and prevent a local collapse of the industry."
Essex County's $30 million shellfish harvesting industry was shut down on May 15 due to red tide.
Essex clamming beds were closed for 46 days this summer because of red tide and an additional five days due to rain. The majority of this year's harvesting restrictions have now been lifted, according to the governor's statement.
The red tide shutdown this year was the second serious disruption in four years. In 2005, a red tide crisis closed more than 1 million acres of shellfish beds in Massachusetts — most of them in Essex County — from May 19 to July 19.
It was the largest red tide since 1972, and it cost the local economy an estimated $50 million.
In July 2005, Gov. Patrick distributed $1.9 million in federal aid money to 382 commercial fishermen as partial compensation for lost revenue.
In May of this year, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found 30 percent more seeds responsible for red tide than in 2005.
In an interview in July, Kelly Corrao, owner of Essex Shellfish, said this year's red tide was bad for the industry but not as disastrous as the crisis of 2005.
Red tide is caused by the alga Alexandrium funyense, a micro-organism that creates the toxin responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
While the micro-organism is harmless to shellfish, it is dangerous to humans in high concentrations. Humans are exposed to high concentrations when ingesting shellfish that have concentrated amounts of Alexandrium funyense in their bodies.
From March to November, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries conducts weekly monitoring for red tide.
If levels of red tide toxins are high, shellfishing areas are shut down.