US commerce department to allocate US$88 million disaster relief for fisheries affected by spillway opening

Bonnet Carre Spillway (Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers)

On Tuesday, May 19, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross confirmed the allocation of US$88 million in fishery disaster funding to Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, where a catastrophic regional fishery disaster occurred due to extreme freshwater flooding in 2019 associated with the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

The funds will be used to address a range of impacts including impacts to commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, charter businesses, subsistence users, processors, shore-side infrastructure, and the fishing ecosystem and environment. Activities that can be considered for funding include infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, state-run vessel and fishing permit buybacks, and job retraining.

Located in St. Charles Parrish in Louisiana, the Bonnet Carre Spillway was originally completed in 1931 as a flood control structure on the lower Mississippi River.

In April 2019, after the spillway had been opened twice in the same year — the first time such an instance occurred in the structure’s entire history — it released millions of litres of freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico.

This ultimately led to what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called an oxygen-starved “dead zone” whose area was estimated to be 22,700 square kilometres — roughly equivalent to the total area of the state of New Jersey.

The spill has resulted in over US$250 million in losses for fisheries in the region. Among the stocks that had suffered significant drops were those of crab, finfish, oysters, and shrimp.

Legislators from the affected states have since been lobbying the US Department of Commerce for relief funding to address the damaging effects of the 2019 spillway openings.

More news, opinion and vessel reviews in this month’s Fishing and Aquaculture Week.

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