Over the past few days, Hurricane Sandy barreled through the Mid-Atlantic Ocean, making landfall late Monday night in New Jersey. Thoughts and well-wishes have been flowing in from all over the world – with millions in the dark and no way to travel, the NY-NJ region (the most densely populated stretch of U.S. coastline) is looking at a long and tumultuous recovery.
Our local oceans, fisheries, and fishermen are intricately connected to hurricanes and other disasters. Vital friends and sources of fish for NY’s Village Fishmonger CSF network, docks like Viking Village (on Long Beach Island, NJ) and shellfishermen like Parson’s Seafood and Maxwell’s (around Great Bay, NJ) were directly hit by Hurricane Sandy. As of this writing, we’re unsure of how these fishermen have fared. After generations of fishing, we’re hoping that all members of those communities have been spared the worst of the storm and are safe and secure.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, thousands will be without homes, businesses along the Jersey Shore and the South Shore of Long Island will be rebuilding for months, and the public health, safety, environmental, and economic problems will take even longer to sort out. Fishermen, as you might imagine, are significantly affected by hurricanes.
Shellfish, finfish, and the people that harvest both, are regularly devastated by hurricanes, though rarely in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean. According to a 2007 NOAA report, “because oysters require two or more years to grow to marketable size, full recovery from these hurricanes may take years, and some oyster habitats may be lost permanently.” After Hurricane Katrina, 90% of Mississippi’s oyster beds were lost, and 74% of Louisiana’s were destroyed – sediment and debris covering oysters can easily suffocate the bivalve.
Also impacted by Gulf of Mexico hurricanes were artificial reefs (90% loss in Mississippi), barrier islands (15% land area loss in Mississippi, 100-foot retreat in Texas), and corals, sea grass beds, and marshes. Together, these impacts significantly impact fish by destroying or dramatically changing the habitats fish and shellfish need to survive over the long term.
As for the fishermen themselves, storms like Hurricane Sandy put everything at risk. Before storms like this hit, fishermen are already living on the edge economically – gas prices and high costs of coastal properties keep margins low. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, gas prices are going up even more, and dock repairs, boat repairs, infrastructure repairs (fixing ice machines, cargo equipment, etc.), and replacing lost raw materials (bait, packaging supplies, spare line and nets), all add up.
Here in the U.S., there are two federal avenues for fishery disaster relief – the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act (IFA) and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).
In disaster response, under both statutes, fishery resource disasters can “include both the fish themselves and fishing” – either “a sudden and unexpected large decrease in fish stock biomass or other event that results in the loss of essentially all access to the fishery resource, such as loss of fishing vessels and gear, for a substantial period of time in a specific area.” As such, natural disasters like hurricanes, which lead to the loss of access (through inaccessible ports, destroyed equipment and infrastructure, etc., count as fishery disasters.
Under the MSA, “at the discretion of the Secretary or at the request of the Governor of an affected State or a fishing community, the Secretary shall determine whether there is a commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster as a result of…natural causes, … man-made causes, … or undetermined causes.” Interestingly, before any funds can be distributed for disaster relief, the Secretary of Commerce must show that funded restoration projects will not lead to an increase in fishing capacity (as compared to pre-disaster).
Both the IFA and the MSA give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) broad latitude for allocating funds – they can be sent to states or to fishermen, can be used for restoring damaged fisheries, or can even be used to ensure that similar disasters don’t occur in the future. Similarly, both statutory funds are capped at 75% of project costs, meaning fishermen or the states must supply some of the fishery restoration costs themselves.
Funds dispersed for disaster relief, according to a 2011 federal policy document that governs fishery disaster implementation, can be broadly used, and the disaster declaration itself can lead to a variety of other avenues for relief. For example, once a disaster is declared, “fishing related businesses may qualify for certain Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, which can, in certain cases, help address economic injury and physical damage.” In addressing community-wide impacts (like when a hurricane decimates more than just the fishery resource), “assistance…may include developing and improving infrastructure or retraining, with the ultimate goal of making such areas less dependent on a specific fishery or on fishing in general, [or] job retraining programs…”
To date, there have been 50 declared fishery disasters (under either law). In the Mid-Atlantic Region (hit hard by Hurricane Sandy), only a few disasters have been declared (the 2008 NY Hard Clam fishery, 2008 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab, 1999 North Carolina Fisheries, and the 1999 Long Island Sound Lobster Fishery).
The 1999 North Carolina disaster declaration, according to the Press Release from the Department of Commerce, was a direct response to Hurricanes Floyd and Dennis. As the Commerce Secretary notes, “We can’t keep Mother Nature from disrupting commerce…but we can do our part to help those fishermen who face economic ruin due to her actions.”
After we’ve done what we can to help local fishermen, we should start thinking about how fisheries and healthy coastlines can help prevent future disasters like Hurricane Sandy. As Paul Greenberg recently wrote in the New York Times, oysters can form beds along coastlines, forming undulations and contours on the harbor bottom that breaks up wave action – protecting places like low-lying barrier islands or parks from the worst of a storm’s power (around the NY/NJ region, these oyster beds are just starting to make a comeback).
The 2007 NOAA Fishery Disaster Report also notes that “Coastal habitats (i.e., barrier islands and shorelines, coral reefs, nearshore artificial reefs, mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, oyster reefs, and emergent intertidal wetlands) also contribute to the coastal ecosystem by absorbing energy from storms and hurricanes, thereby protecting more landward habitats, coastal communities, and infrastructure vital to the Nation.”
The price of Hurricane Sandy will not likely be known for some time – homes, businesses, beaches, boardwalks, and lives, have been destroyed. Fisheries and the fishermen are one part of this picture, and we hope they’re safe and secure. As for rebuilding our homes, our fisheries and our ecosystems, it will take time, but the communities and families of the region’s fisheries are strong and resilient, so we’re confident the fisheries will be back.