Sitting in a Washington, D.C. airport, getting ready to board a delayed 10:30 p.m. flight back to Providence, travelers from the Cape talked about visiting nearly a dozen legislative offices in their efforts to improve commercial fisheries.
“Well, we set the gear,” said Sean Leach, using an apt metaphor for their outreach, and the phrase was fitting not only because Sean is a lobsterman, but because it was unclear what the hours of advocacy, like gear left to fish underwater, would actually harvest.
Much of their discussion on Capitol Hill was about threats to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, landmark legislation that has managed the fisheries for 40 years. Even as many fish stocks are rebounding, recreational fishing interests are trying to roll back safeguards that protect species.
Perhaps just as important was support for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, which has stalled.
The Cape Cod group Sean Leach and his father Mark joined was part of 30 or so fishermen and policy gurus from seven fishing coalitions around the country, intent on making representatives in Congress understand that both Magnuson rewrites being proposed – one for the Senate, one in the House – would harm commercial fishermen as well as the resource.
They also explained that all the successes of the act would come to naught if young fishermen couldn’t get into the industry.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act is known for pushing the foreign factory fleet 200 miles from shore in 1976. But that’s a pyrrhic victory if the vast majority of fish eaten in the United States comes from overseas.
“The only access your constituents have to wholesome, sustainably caught fish is from the US commercial fishery,” said Jeff Pike of Pike Associates, a former Chatham fisherman who now works as a lobbyist on many ocean-related issues in D.C.
Traveling to Washington to wander around marble halls in button-down shirts and dress shoes, sitting in meetings with federal officials, is not the first choice for most people who make a living on the water.
Sean took on the role following in his father’s footsteps. Mark Leach, who also grew up in Harwich, had been in Washington in the past, and taken Sean there as a teenager to fight for sustainable fisheries.
That was more than a decade ago.
Leach realized that connecting with those who make laws that affect fishermen’s livelihoods is increasingly important, particularly since the world of fisheries management can be arcane.
“Activism strengthens the industry,” said Leach, adding that it doesn’t benefit communities or fish if lawmakers only hear from corporate interests.
The fishery is personal to the Leach family, and many others who have made sacrifices to build a success story.
“We are very protective of our lobster,” he said.
That commitment to sustainability prompted the Fishermen’s Alliance to help start what came to be called the Fishing Communities Coalition, a grassroots coalition of commercial fishing groups from all corners of the country.
“We realized a few years ago there wasn’t a unified voice for small boat commercial fishermen,” said Eric Brazer, deputy director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, who began his fisheries advocacy work at the Alliance in 2004. “We are a lot more similar than we are different.”
The Shareholders’ Alliance, California’s Morro Bay Community Quota Fund and the Cape contingent spent the majority of the day together while the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association tackled other offices with common messages. The first group started the day in the office of Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, who is on the Oceans Subcommittee.
Conner Cochran, who flew in from Galveston, Texas, was among the first to speak.
“My name is Conner Cochran. I am 14 years old,” Cochran said with a soft drawl. “I work for my dad.
“For us it’s not just a job. It’s a way of life. It’s an amazing job. I want to do it when I’m older and follow in my father’s footsteps.”
Cochran, wearing a blue shirt and khakis, needed help getting his tie knotted, but he was more than capable of explaining the importance commercial fishing.
“We are the ones who provide fresh seafood for the public,” Conner said. “I want people to come to Galveston and have a great meal.”
But he doesn’t know other young people entering the fishery. That means the United States relies more and more on fish from overseas. So he is hoping the Young Fishermen’s Act helps others get started.
“Knowing how to fish is a big part of the industry, but knowing how to manage the business is a bigger part,” Cochran said.
Sean Leach feels the same. He knows full well that most aren’t as lucky as he is; his path into lobstering was opened up by his dad. He has seen too many crewmembers get out of the industry because of a lack of training, a changing regulatory landscape and other barriers to entry.
The young fishermen’s act could offer support for aspiring fishermen to work on a business plan to bring to a bank to secure a crucial loan. It would also keep fishing communities strong by fostering stewardship of the resource and a greater connection between those who catch the fish and those who eat it.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Sean said.
Funding the act would come from fines paid by fishermen who violate the rules — no tax dollars, no budget implications.
Seguing from the Young Fishermen’s Act to Magnuson is not difficult because both issues focus on the future.
Recreational interests are angling for more of the total catch, without as much accountability, and that is bad news for commercial fishermen and maybe the stocks themselves.
Commercial fishermen have operated under stringent data collection regimes for years. Recreational fisheries don’t have to keep detailed catch reports and only voluntarily submit numbers.
For example, the recreational sector in the Gulf has exceeded its science-based quota for red snapper 23 of the last 27 years and this year the recreational fleet harvested 400,000 pounds more Gulf of Maine cod than they were allotted. Commercial fishermen therefore will have to reduce what they fish to compensate for that overfishing.
“One group is being punished for the sins of another,” said Amanda Cousart, policy analyst for the Fishermen’s Alliance.
When it came to making their point, the best argument Fishing Community Coalition members could possibly muster emerged at the end of the day.
At a “Fish Tales” evening event where legislators and staff rubbed elbows with fishermen, fresh fish from across the country was served; red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico, sable fish from Alaska, scallops from the Cape.
Congressman Jared Huffman, a California Democrat and key point person for the Magnuson negotiations, pledged to continue to work to protect the act.
“Thanks for working with me,” he said, as he reached for another scallop.
(Learn more about the Leach family and their businesses in our related article, “A father and son team work together to improve lobster fishery.” )