Stimulus Money to Help Oyster Farmers in Florida

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Designed to help small business owners, the $2 trillion stimulus package passed last week has earmarked $300 million for workers in aquaculture-related jobs. That’s a lot of clams!

Ok, enough about clams. Let’s talk about oysters!

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Florida seafood industry hard, in the panhandle of Florida, oyster farmers are feeling extremely shell-shocked (pun obviously intended).

While struggling to make ends meet, many restaurants have closed up shop for a while or are offering carryout options instead of their regular menu items. Unfortunately, shellfish is being left off the plate.

For the most part, farmers are feeling the hard reality of this pandemic.

“We are open and running routes but they’ve been cut back to once a week,” Stephanie Barber, owner of Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint, told David Adlerstein with the Apalachicola Times. “We’re running pretty short, trucks are real light. All the sales fell off real bad,” Barber continued. “We haven’t been taking in much at all, maybe one or two oystermen a day.”

The Success of Oyster Boss

Jeff Tilley, who grows Alligator Harbor Oysters and is the owner of Oyster Boss, LLC, offers a different perspective. “We had an incredible week last week,” he told an official with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Commercial Services, which regulates the aquaculture industry. 

Tilley is no longer sourcing oysters outside of his own company, but he’s helping other oyster farmers by giving them access to his processing plant at no charge. He has also heavily discounted his oysters, pricing them at $55 per bag versus the standard $85 per bag. 

Tilley sells both cultured and wild product, all from Florida. And most from Alligator Harbor and Yankeetown. Oyster Boss is now focused, more than ever, on selling to fish houses and local Florida seafood suppliers versus the restaurant industry.

Tilley partners with Benny Barker from Benny B’s Seafood Trading Company to get these succulent treats to consumers throughout Florida. Barker, who spent years in the financial industry, swapped out his finance hat for a baseball cap and oyster-shucking gloves and has been traveling the state delivering Florida’s finest oysters ever since.

Prior to the pandemic, Barker had teamed up with Tampa-based seafood supplier, Local Seafood and Turtle Foods to deliver Alligator Harbor oysters to Tampa and St Petersburg area restaurants. Unfortunately, when the market took a turn and restaurants changed gears, Local Seafood also began to sell a limited stock of items direct to consumer. This forced Barker to adjust his focus, too.

Now, his oyster truck can be seen on Florida highways throughout the state en route to small seafood markets and consumers. 

“I think the key to our limited success in this environment is having a dynamic partnership between small businesses that both have an agile operating model,” says Barker. “This allowed Oysters Boss and Benny B Seafood to switch from a primarily wholesale business to a retail in such a short period of time.”

“I’m just grateful that there is still an opportunity to put these delicious mollusks on peoples’ plates,” continued Barker. “I’m also grateful for my partnership with Tilley and the customers, both retail and at-home consumers, that keep us in business. At the same time, I hope we all get through this soon.”

So far, Tilley and Barker are covering their costs and making a small profit to sustain them through this financially difficult time.

Sadly, Tilley and team might be the exception to the current economical climate. 

How the Stimulus Money Might Help

It’s still unclear how stimulus money will be distributed to fisheries and aquaculture businesses. Many of these companies are family owned and depend on a good fishing season to survive.

The law creating the stimulus package allows the secretary of commerce to provide aid to Tribal, subsistence, commercial and charter fishery participants affected by COVID-19. It defines them as Tribes, persons, fishing communities, or aquaculture businesses not eligible for other aid.

Businesses or persons who receive money from the stimulus package must prove financial losses larger than 35%. This percentage is based on a 5-year average. They must also show direct or indirect correlation between those losses and the pandemic. 

The funds may be available within a fishing season and continue until September 30, 2021. 

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