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Tuesday, January 04, 2011 at 2:45 pm

ELLSWORTH — More than a year after former Governor John Baldacci requested help, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke issued a “fisheries disaster” declaration that makes the Maine shellfish industry eligible for federal assistance to help it recover from the combined effects of heavy rainfall and a prolonged red tide outbreak during 2009.

That’s the good news.

The real news, though, is that the disaster declaration won’t put any federal money in the pockets of Maine shellfish harvesters and dealers unless the new Congress appropriates disaster relief funds. That may depend on how persuasive the state’s congressional delegation can be over the next several months.

The disaster declaration “is an important step in a longer process,” former Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe said Monday, two days before vacating his office to make way for a successor as yet unnamed by Governor Paul LePage. “It allows our congressional delegation to seek funding to compensate the industry.”

Baldacci asked for the disaster declaration in October 2009 — one of the worst years for the shellfish industry in memory. That year, the red tide bloom began in late April and, at its peak, actually colored the water in some areas along the coast red.

The outbreak also forced 79 towns to close their clam flats for at least 30 days. The length and widespread extent of the closures was about 50 percent more intense than in 2005, when shellfish industry also qualified for federal disaster aid.

For more maritime news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.