TALLAHASSEE — Nearly a year after the state first asked for help, federal officials are declaring a fishery disaster for Florida's oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico.
The collapse of the oyster industry last year came after a drought reduced freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay. But state officials have also blamed the lack of freshwater flow due to increased consumption in Georgia.
The declaration by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker sets the stage for possible help from the federal government if Congress approves it. That aid could include economic assistance to fishing businesses and communities, including oystermen.
"We understand the economic significance this historic oyster fishery has for fishermen and related businesses in the Panhandle of Florida," Pritzker said in a statement.
The announcement comes a day before both U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are scheduled to be in Apalachicola for a field hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee. The committee will take testimony about the impact of water flows in the bay.
The Apalachicola River that flows into the bay is part of the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint river system. The states of Alabama, Georgia and Florida have fought for years over the amount of freshwater coming downstream from Georgia to the other states.
Gov. Rick Scott first requested a fishery disaster declaration back in September 2012.
He called on Congress to act swiftly to approve aid for the region now that the federal declaration had been made.
"Congress should move with a sense of urgency to provide much needed support for families in the region, so they can get back on their feet and continue providing our nation with the world's best oysters," Scott said in a statement.
Last year the state obtained a $2.7 million federal grant to pay 200 dislocated oystermen for a project to re-shell the bay in the Florida Panhandle to help it recover and re-open to harvesting.