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Commercial fishing operations still reeling from Sandy

Industry gets little funding support as planners focus on ways to rebuild Shore area for tourism

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Joe Branin, above, says losses at the Belford Seafood Co-Op totaled $1.24 million. ‘We had almost what you’d call a 100 percent loss,’ he says. Just $5 million has been allocated for fisheries that suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy. Dan Diehl, below, stocks the fish for sale at the co-op, in the Belford section of Middletown.
Joe Branin, above, says losses at the Belford Seafood Co-Op totaled $1.24 million. ‘We had almost what you’d call a 100 percent loss,’ he says. Just $5 million has been allocated for fisheries that suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy. Dan Diehl, below, stocks the fish for sale at the co-op, in the Belford section of Middletown. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Much of the focus of Sandy recovery has been on restoring the state’s tourism industry, but another economic engine for Shore communities also is reeling.

A report by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration found New Jersey’s commercial and recreational fishing industries suffered between $78 million and $121 million in economic damage as a result of the storm. The bulk of the damage came to the recreational fishing industry.

Greg DiDomenico, executive director of the Garden State Seafood Association, said Middletown’s Belford section and Point Pleasant Beach had some of the worst damage within the commercial fishing industry. Perhaps the hardest-hit operation was the Belford Seafood Co-Op; its general manager, Joe Branin, said Sandy was by far the worst storm to hit the 60-year-old cooperative.

“We had almost what you’d call a 100 percent loss,” he said.

The main building flooded, but is still standing; the restaurant was destroyed; a system used to get ice from the icehouse to fishing vessels was underwater; and the facility suffered major electrical damage. They’re still working with their utility, Jersey Central Power & Light, to move electrical components to more secure on-site locations.

All told, Branin and his accountant totaled the loss at $1.24 million.

Scot Mackey, a partner at MBI-GluckShaw who lobbies on behalf of the seafood association, said his firm is working with companies to help them access federal disaster aid. Businesses are slated to receive some $500 million, according to the state’s plan for the $1.8 billion first installment of federal aid. But Mackey said the fishing industry has another avenue for help.

“The Secretary of Commerce can declare a fisheries disaster, which did happen in this case,” he said. “When they declared the fisheries disaster, that means they’re eligible for funds, but only $5 million was placed into that fund.”

In fact, Congress initially slated $150 million to help fishing operations hurt by Sandy and a handful of other fisheries disasters. Instead, the funding was slashed to $5 million, for Sandy victims alone.

That angered Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), who said the government already underfunds fisheries research.

“It is greatly unfortunate that efforts to reduce fisheries disaster aid were successful and that now our coastal communities are left to suffer the burden, leaving our state’s economy even further underwater,” Pallone said in a prepared statement.

That’s left those looking to rebuild waiting on federal aid.

Branin said he’s applied for aid and taken out a loan from a local bank to help continue his rebuilding. Insurance has helped, too, though only slightly.

“The insurance didn’t pay for it but for a little portion,” he said. “Insurance costs me $44,000 a year, and the insurance company felt justified in giving me $11,000,” because the damage was deemed to be from water, not wind. He called an independent adjuster to see if it was worth an appeal, but the adjuster told him it wasn’t worth it.

Joe Myers, aquaculture development specialist at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, said most of the state’s aquaculture operations fared relatively well during the storm, but a few were hit hard, including two in the Tuckerton area.

Myers said some areas are still closed to shellfish harvesting.

“Anytime there’s a large flooding event, the state closes waters for shellfish harvest,” he said. “That basically puts the shellfish harvesters out of business.”

The problem, Myers said, is that flooding causes runoff to enter the shellfish areas, and the state won’t reopen the areas until the water and shellfish pass safety tests.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the southern portion of the Barnegat Bay, as well as the Raritan Bay, remains closed.

Overall, Hajna said, most of the industry is up and running, though some ports aren’t at full capacity and have lingering infrastructure issues.

DiDomenico said he’s pleased with the government’s response to the disaster, but he said the process of getting money out to his industry is a slow one, even with the best of intentions.

“It’s going to take some time, but we’re getting there,” he said.

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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