Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently sent welcome news to Mississippi’s fishing communities. The declaration of a federal fisheries disaster for our state at the end of September will open up relief for those affected by the ongoing crisis on the Gulf Coast.

After historic rainfall and the unprecedented 123-day opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway earlier this year, fresh water streamed into the Gulf, devastating the local ecosystem, causing massive losses of marine wildlife, and shutting down fishing operations and other businesses. Federal funds will help Mississippi’s world-renowned fishermen begin to come back from one of the toughest seasons on record.

I have worked on behalf of Mississippians on this issue for many months, and I am glad to see progress. In June Congressman Steven Palazzo and I wrote in support of Governor Phil Bryant’s request for a disaster declaration, and all six senators from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama joined together in July to send a letter urging Secretary Ross to help restore the Gulf Coast.

Solutions to the Crisis

This declaration’s urgency is apparent to anyone who has been paying attention. I have seen firsthand how the introduction of fresh water into the Gulf of Mexico has hurt our state’s signature seafood industry. Between 89 and 100 percent of oysters on Mississippi harvest reefs have died, shrimp landings are down by 50 percent, and harmful algae have closed entire beachfronts, leaving hotels and restaurants vacant at the height of tourist season.

When we request this kind of declaration, we are often frustrated by delays. Even after a disaster is declared, it can often take several months for actual help to arrive. Though relief efforts are advancing in this case, this situation has revealed once again that the fisheries disaster declaration process is in urgent need of reform. To fix this problem, I have introduced the Fishery FUNDD Act, which would streamline the process and ensure that strict deadlines are enforced.

This bill would also allow fishermen – those most clearly affected by these disasters – to receive direct financial support. Under existing law, payments typically go only to larger organizations, state agencies, or restoration projects. As Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United’s Ryan Bradley said of the Fishery FUNDD Act, “This much-needed reform to the nation’s antiquated fishery disaster relief program is crucial to protecting our coastal communities and ensuring that those most impacted by fishery disasters can receive the timely assistance they so desperately need.”

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, I convened a hearing to examine “Fishery Failures: Improving the Disaster Declaration and Relief Process.” Executive Director for the Mississippi Department of Resources Joe Spraggins testified, providing details about the extent of the damage so that my colleagues on Capitol Hill can better understand what is happening on our state’s coast.

Mississippi is Recovering

This year has been particularly hard for many Mississippians affected by extreme weather. When Americans’ livelihoods are compromised by major disasters, the federal government steps in help. The Fishery FUNDD Act and the Commerce Committee’s work are steps to get Mississippi fishermen and their families back on their feet.

I am grateful to Secretary Ross for the Commerce Department’s efforts. With this latest declaration and dedicated support, Mississippi’s fishermen will once again be able to deliver the best seafood in the world to America’s dining tables. I will continue working so that, when the next disaster strikes, relief will not be so long in coming.

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