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Oyster industry asks USDA to OK crop insurance

Louisiana’s oyster harvesters have asked for federal approval of a crop insurance plan for their business.

“For as little as $100, you could get catastrophic coverage,” said Mike Voisin, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and owner of Motivatit Seafoods Inc. in Houma.

The program would take the 30-year production average in a given harvesting area as a base, and harvesters would decide how much coverage to buy each year.

Although hurricanes during the past several years fueled the discussion for crop insurance, there are reasons other than hurricanes for having crop insurance.

Anything that would reduce oyster production, such as freshwater diversions or expansion of the summertime, low-oxygen “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, would qualify. The payments would be based on production, not on the type of disaster.

The oyster industry has applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s risk management agency, Voisin said. If approved, oyster harvesters could apply for the insurance through insurance agencies, Voisin said.

Ron Harrell, commodity director of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, said initial approval would likely be a three-year trial to learn how many harvesters are interested.

“Hopefully, we can have either a yea or nay as soon as the end of the year,” Harrell said. If that happens, insurance could be offered for the 2007 crop year.

“No other oyster-producing state has this. We would be the first,” Harrell said. “It helps provide them stability and some security.”

If it works, Voisin said, it could be a model for the shrimp and crab fisheries, among others in Louisiana.

“It’s your safety net that you fall into,” Voisin said.

Although grateful for the federal support that has come to Louisiana, Voisin said it’s hard to go to Washington, D.C., and “beg” for money after disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The crop insurance program would be something that oystermen would pay into, helping them become more self-supportive if disaster strikes, he said.

Although fishermen are known to be independent types, Voisin said he thinks the insurance program will draw heavy participation if it’s approved.

“If you knew you could protect … your income,” Voisin said, “I think you’d sign up.”