By Seth Rolbein
On the last evening of April, Congressman Jared Huffman from California’s northern coast was mingling with fishermen from Alaska, California, the Gulf of Mexico, Maine, and Cape Cod at a fish, beer, and wine bash just a few blocks off Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. He was a good guy to see there; chair of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, he has a lot of say and sway about federal fish issues. His brother also happens to have fished commercially in Alaska.
“Great to be here again,” said Huffman, who had been to the same party a year ago, also organized by the Fishing Communities Coalition, a national shore-roots group created by small-port independent fishermen, including the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “I remember eating some fantastic scallops from Cape Cod, but I caught some flak for how I pronounced it.”
True enough; Harwich fisherman Mark Leach had ribbed the Congressman in 2018 about saying “scahhlops” rather than “scollops,” whereupon an old Cape Cod line was invoked: Those who eat them say “scahhlops,” those who catch them say “scollops.”
“This year I have no problem,” Huffman smiled. “It’s monkfish, no two ways about it!”
The monkfish, caught by Bob Eldredge from Chatham, had been fast-shipped from the Cape to D.C. by Red’s Best, then chunked and cooked on skewers; monk kabobs. Other fish from around the country included salmon and yellow eye rockfish from Alaska, and red snapper from the Gulf. The great fish, free beer and wine, probably attracted a packed house of Congressional staffers and government officials as much or more than the contingent of fishermen, who ranged from Caleb and Jess Robbins (Alaskan longliners) to Shan Roper and his son Shan II (the dad a veteran looking to get the family established off the Florida panhandle), to Stephanie Sykes from Harwich, who gave up a monkfish gillnet trip to help spread the fishing gospel in the nation’s capital.
Events like these are meant to be fun, but as with most things Washington, there were additional motives. Mingling with key Congressional staff, catching up with NOAA administrators beer in hand, offering unified messages with great credibility because they are coming from fishermen rather than paid lobbyists, becomes an invaluable opportunity to inform and shape public policy. Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local; it’s just as true that all politics is personal.
The policy focal point this time around was a piece of legislation called “The Young Fishermen’s Development Act,” which would create a national program to educate, train and mentor young and beginning commercial fishermen; an older military veteran like Shan Roper would not be excluded. The bill would set aside $2 million a year from monies already being collected as fines and penalties from scofflaw fishermen, and use it to support locally created programs that get the next generation of fishermen on the water.
“We know how to catch fish, we don’t need help there,” said Sykes, who has been proving that on more than one Cape Cod boat in recent years. “But the fisheries today is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Regulations, safety issues, sophisticated navigation, finances, you name it. That’s where emerging fishermen would benefit from some smart course work.”
The meet and greet, held at the offices of Pike Associates (Jeff Pike fished in Chatham in his younger years, staffed for Congressmen Studds and Delahunt, then started his own consulting firm), was only one piece of a multi-day effort by the fishing ambassadors. Dividing into smaller groups, targeting Senators and Congressmen from their regions and those with key committee assignments, the team was able to meet with nearly 60 offices. Sometimes it was staff with fisheries responsibilities, sometimes it was the Congressman or Senator in person. Sometimes the conversations were quick and superficial, sometimes lengthy and detailed.
The Cape group got around, often teaming up with a contingent from Maine. On the Senate side it was the offices of Massachusetts Senators Markey and Warren, Markey stepping out of a hearing to join in person and Warren’s long-time fisheries staffer Bruno Freitas promising support. Other Senate briefings included the offices of Senators Whitehouse and Reed from Rhode Island, Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut, and Senator Booker from New Jersey. On the House side the group bounced from Representatives Pingree and Golden (Maine) to Pappas (New Hampshire), Moulton (Massachusetts) across the country to Carbajal (California), among others.
“We are not asking for a budget appropriation,” Fishermen’s Alliance policy analyst Amanda Cousart emphasized in meeting after meeting. “This money is already being collected and is sitting in an existing fund. Using some of that to support emerging fishermen will not cost the taxpayers, and it won’t hurt enforcement efforts either.”
Interestingly enough, three offices – Moulton, Warren and Booker – have what might be described as bigger fish to fry; running for President, all three were buzzing with activity. That this national bill supports fishing interests from coast to coast, with bipartisan backing, was a point emphasized. Moulton was an initial sponsor and Warren has signed on; Booker has expressed strong initial support.
Other FCC members carried the message elsewhere, for example to Senator Rubio from Florida, Senator Collins from Maine, and Congressman Young from Alaska.
The bill is patterned on a longstanding program which provides much more funding, around $35 million a year, to train ranchers and farmers in everything from business planning to crop and livestock management. The needs are comparable, the challenges familiar.
While it’s difficult to tell how much this outreach actually accomplishes, it’s clear that without this kind of effort, legislation almost always stalls. And so it seems that suspending disbelief, pushing through the halls office by office, is a necessary strategy.
And there are ways to measure progress: At latest report, the Young Fishermen’s Development Act now has more than a dozen sponsors, Democrats and Republicans, including a handful who signed on after visits from the Fishing Communities Coalition team. The bill has now had a hearing at the subcommittee, which means it might soon be marked up for consideration and a vote.
Among those supporters is Congressman Huffman:
“We’re going to do some good work on fisheries,” he promised the FCC crowd. “We’ll see you in the Natural Resources Committee soon.”