Leigh Habegger, executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America, Chris Brown, president of the SHA board, Aubrey Church of Fishermen’s Alliance and Andrea Tomlinson of New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance in Washington, D.C.
By Doreen Leggett
While in Washington, D.C., Aubrey Church, policy manager at Fishermen’s Alliance, was sitting with representatives of 120-foot trawlers, Alaska Berring Sea Crabbers, Oregon’s distant water fleet, and drift and setnet salmon fishermen – all members of Seafood Harvesters of America.
Seafood Harvesters of America, a national commercial fisheries organization, had long been advised that building alliances between commercial fishermen who don’t always agree pays dividends on Capital Hill.
“The more ways you find to coalesce together, when you might traditionally not, is exponential power. You are not asking policy makers to pick between friends this way,” said Darrell Connor, government affairs counselor with K & L Gates.
California fisherman Bob Dooley explained it more colorfully.
“We all want a steak dinner, some want a baked potato, others want a side of rice, but we all want a steak dinner.”
The dozen fishing groups represented at the annual meeting of Seafood Harvesters had plenty of figurative steak to coalesce around – reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act so it reflects the myriad challenges fishing businesses face today, concerns with development of offshore wind without the voices of fishermen in planning, opportunities in the Farm Bill, NOAA regulations, preparing fisheries for continuing climate change, a larger voice in the Blue Economy, not losing access to fishing areas and better accountability in the fisheries.
Chris Brown, longtime president of Seafood Harvesters whose home port is Point Judith, Rhode Island, told the group they face opposition on every issue. Change is a constant in commercial fisheries and they need to be proactive and strong on the issues before them.
“Change has come to our door again,” he said. “We have to find a way to be more aligned.”
SHA representatives addressed an important national issue at one of their first meetings on the Hill.
The group met with the Senate Appropriations Committee to further drive home a message they have been touting for years: increased funding – and a better funding mechanism – for research surveys the government routinely performs. Those surveys are often incomplete, but form the basis for management decisions that drive the regulations fishermen operate under.
“It’s really important. We can’t measure the health of fisheries without sound scientific data,” said Church.
Church added the research could be done collaboratively with fishermen, which would improve its breadth and scope.
SHA members also pushed for additional funding for the eight regional management councils that conserve and regulate fishery resources. As councils are tasked with more responsibilities, building climate-resilient fisheries or studying the impacts of wind farms for example, they increasingly don’t have the staff to do the work required to make sound decisions.
“We need to make sure councils have the necessary resources to adequately support and manage our fisheries,” Church said.
Another issue, said Church, is the timeliness of the data. The lag between what is happening on the water and management changes to address it, is often too wide to help fishermen.
SHA members also spoke to legislators about ensuring the 2023 Farm Bill included critical support for the fishing industry, which has been lacking in past years.
“One of the additions would be to create an Office of Seafood,” said Church.
The group also advocated for greater seafood purchases across USDA nutrition programs as well as extending the eligibility for certain USDA grants and loans to U.S. seafood producers and supporting businesses.
The U.S. seafood sector faces challenges similar to those that confront American farmers and ranchers and SHA has asked that language in past Farm Bills that sought to boost whole grain products in USDA nutrition programs should be adapted and applied to seafood.
“The Government Accountability Office makes clear that reform is an urgent health priority for our Nation’s children: while nutritional guidelines recommend school-aged children receive between four and ten ounces of seafood per week, the National School Lunch Program only delivers roughly three ounces of seafood per year to these students,” a letter to NOAA, signed by 540 industry members, reads.
In a meeting with Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, Church was able to highlight suggestions for NOAA’s draft National Seafood Strategy.
Church said federal money needs to be allocated to invest in new emerging fisheries that allow fishermen to diversify their harvester portfolio and decrease fishing pressure on species in rebuilding or low stock status.
Investing in the future of the industry and the coastal communities that depend on it is also a priority, she told Coit.
“We need to address the “graying of the fleet” and attract young fishermen and seafood farmers to the sector by fully funding and expanding the Young Fishermen’s Development program. Currently, farmers and ranchers are eligible to participate in hundreds of workforce development programs compared to the seafood industry,” Church said.
She added efforts need to be made on a federal level to identify and develop U.S seafood markets that provide more local, and abundant seafood onto plates at universities, school systems, hospitals, and food banks.
“Education to consumers should focus on an approach that shrinks the geographical distance from port to plate and encourages individuals to choose a wide variety of seafood from their local ecosystems, thereby supporting a reduced carbon footprint,” she said.
Church said she found that SHA, which is based in Washington D.C., was well known among legislators and that its views are valued.
“We are making our message loud and clear,” she said.
The message can not be understated.
“We are the first link in the supply chain to supplying the nation,” said SHA board president Brown.