By ANATH HARTMANN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 29, 2008)—The Commerce Department said this week it can't set a firm date for the release of $30 million in disaster relief funds for the Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery, but would disburse the money as soon as it could.
Maryland's congressional delegation last Friday asked that Commerce "expedite" the distribution.
But, other U.S. fisheries disasters have so far prevented Commerce from distributing the money meant to employ Maryland's out-of-work watermen in bay restoration jobs, said a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"There are several disasters out there," said spokesman Anson Franklin, citing the Gulf Coast crisis caused by hurricanes Ike and Gustav, as well as other requests from the East Coast and salmon-related requests from the West Coast. "We're working as hard as we can ... to allocate these (funds) as quickly as possible because we know they are important to Maryland and Virginia."
The money was allocated as part of a $75 million disaster relief bill passed last month.
Many watermen are looking for jobs following the end on Oct. 23 of the commercial female blue crab season, shortened this year by the state to reduce the harvest of the bay's dwindling blue crab populations.
The crab's numbers in the bay have declined 70 percent since the early 1990s, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
"(I)t is critical that $30 million in fishery disaster assistance funding be released immediately to help minimize and mitigate the impacts on our watermen and crabbing industry," said the letter, signed by Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin, both D-Baltimore, and Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, and John Sarbanes, D-Towson.
The emergency bailout legislation does not mandate any deadline for the release of the funds, so Commerce is not bound to release them any sooner following receipt of the letter, said Sue Walitsky, a Cardin spokeswoman.
"It wasn't that they were dragging on any deadline, we just want to ask that it's done as soon as possible," Walitsky said. "It was a little poke."
The delegation plans to continue sending letters and making calls until the funds are released, Walitsky said.
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said he gets daily calls from members looking for work.
"The season for females is over... the guys need a job now so we need the money released sooner rather than later," Simns said. "I get four, five phone calls a day (from watermen looking for work). They live in areas that don't have many jobs and they just don't have nothing to do, no income coming in at all."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.