The U.S. Department of Commerce on Friday declared the fishing industries in New Jersey and New York a federal disaster following Hurricane Sandy, opening the way for federal assistance.

The storm destroyed boats and vessels, damaged ports and idled dozens of boats, costing the industry millions of dollars. Contamination from the storm also led officials to close coastal shellfish beds for weeks out of fear of pollution. Storm damage was particularly severe in North Jersey.

Rebecca Blank, the acting secretary of commerce, announced the declaration Friday afternoon. No immediate assistance was announced.

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The declaration allows Congress to appropriate federal relief funds for areas of the industry that were most affected by the storm, including commercial and charter fishing operations, seafood processors and the owners of related fishery infrastructure. If money is appropriated, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will work closely with members of Congress and the governors to develop financial assistance plans.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said it had already started preliminary work to assess storm damage. Next week, the DEP said, officials from the state, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission are expected to visit affected commercial and recreational fishing operations.

The declaration follows requests by the governors of New Jersey and New York and the states’ congressional delegations. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thanked federal officials in a release, saying his administration would work closely with federal officials.

U.S. Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, R-2nd, also applauded the government’s action.

“With a robust recreational fishing industry and the second largest commercial port on the East Coast, the impact from Sandy on South Jersey’s fishing communities cannot be overstated as infrastructure must be repaired and fisheries rebuilt,” said LoBiondo, chairman of the House Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.

U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd, echoed LoBiondo’s comments. The industry employs 40,000 and brings in billions of dollars in annual revenue, he noted.

“This assistance will go a long way toward recovery of the industry and the towns and residents that rely upon them,” he said. “There is still a great deal of work to do, and I remain committed to doing everything in my power to ensure the swift recovery for all of New Jersey.”

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