Thirty six offices in two days, small boat fishermen in D.C.

May 29, 2024 | Fish Tales

Ray Rowell, permit bank director at Fishermen’s Alliance, Rep. Bill Keating, Captain Bradley Louw and Aubrey Church, policy director at Fishermen’s Alliance wrap up a meeting with a photo.

By Doreen Leggett

Bradley Louw, a commercial fisherman for 15 years, was running on four hours of sleep in two days when he landed in Washington, D.C. during the week before the Memorial Day crush.

He had two days of 14 meetings scheduled with legislative offices and had bought a new shirt and tie, tag still on.

“It’s the only knot I don’t know how to tie,” the captain said with a laugh.

Before long Louw, tie just fine, was sitting in Congressman William Keating’s office talking about the challenges his industry faces. Keating represents Massachusetts from Quincy to Provincetown, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Joined by Aubrey Church, policy director at the Fishermen’s Alliance and Ray Rowell, a former commercial fisherman who is now permit bank director at the Fishermen’s Alliance, the group talked about fishermen-driven science, climate-change resilient fisheries and the need to invest in working waterfronts. Louw’s focus also was on pushing the market price of seafood up.

“How are we going to strengthen our prices instead of utilizing imported seafood from other countries?” he asked. “Everything has gone up – fuel, insurance, maintenance – but we are getting the same prices we got in 1994.”

Keating’s office has been working on ways to increase domestic seafood consumption. He recently signed onto a Congressional letter calling on the United States Department of Agriculture to buy more seafood from small-boat fishermen for food nutrition programs, which include schools.

“It’s really important for the future. We have to make our food chains more regional,” Keating said.

Keating was pleased to let Fishermen’s Alliance staff know they had been awarded a $128,000 Saltonstall-Kennedy grant to expand a Fishermen Training Course. Keating and other members of the Massachusetts delegation have been supporters.

Issues Louw, Church and Rowell talked about were echoed by other groups in the national Fishing Communities Coalition.

The Fishing Communities Coalition, FCC, unifies seven groups stretching from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico and across to California and Alaska in advocacy for small-scale fishing businesses. They represent more than 1,000 fishing families and visited close to 40 offices while in D.C.

“It’s so important for fishermen and their associations to travel to DC. Senators and representatives, and their staff, need to hear directly from the people about what’s at stake,” said Noah Oppenheim, coordinator of FCC. “Policy is almost always developed in the abstract. When deals get cut and decisions are made without the voice of impacted fishing businesses and communities, the outcome is always worse.”

Vincent Balzano, a long-time dragger fisherman from Maine, emphasized market problems and lack of support in a meeting with the staff of Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, whose district includes Gloucester.

Balzano said Portland, Maine was once a thriving domestic fishing port, but not anymore. He said a new cold storage facility is being built there to handle overseas fish. That facility, he said, received close to 80 percent subsidy from American taxpayers.

“It’s directly competing with the species I land. That is going to compound the problem,” he said.

A few meetings later, with the office of Congressman Jared Huffman of California, Theresa Peterson, a fisherman and policy director at Alaska Marine Conservation Council, also talked about how fishermen are being paid the same as they were in the 1980s, competing with foreign producers who depress the price using unsustainable fishing practices and cheap wages.

“There are families who may not be able to make their boat payments,” Peterson said. “It’s terrifying.”

Louw advocated for a level playing field.

“No one is looking for a handout, they want a hand up,” agreed Peterson.

Low prices have repercussions in a multitude of ways, explained Alex Todd, a 10th-generation fisherman from Chebeague Island, Maine.

With prices to fishermen so low, there often isn’t enough income to cover the costs of repairing infrastructure. Many times that means someone with deep pockets comes in and buys a wharf or pier, pushing fishermen out.

“We are getting 80 cents (a pound),” said Louw. “If we were getting $2.80 it would change the entire waterfront.”

On publicly owned piers, fees fishermen have paid sometimes go for other town needs and repairs to waterfronts have been deferred. Now many are at a crisis point, with aging structures and accelerating sea level rise creating numerous new problems for working waterfront users.

With the commercial fisheries worth an estimated $150 billion in annual sales nationwide, the loss of those working waterfronts would be an enormous economic hit. The Cape’s ports collectively are worth more than $80 million a year.

“The infrastructure piece of our seafood system is really weak right now,” said Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

FCC members support bills filed in Congress, one in the House and the other in the Senate, to help municipalities or private owners re-invest in the waterfront. Since many ports on the Cape need smaller investments – a new unloading boom, ice machine, freezer space or storage – the Fishermen’s Alliance advocated for a portion of the money to be set aside for small-scale projects.

Rowell, who fished on sea clammers out of Wellfleet and Provincetown, told legislative staff that recently a decrepit, wooden ladder pulled away from the Wellfleet pier, sending a captain flying. He was close enough to jump aboard the boat and only received minor injuries.

In Wellfleet old metal street signs cover holes and Rowell worries about walking on the deteriorating pier, never mind tractor-trailers picking up catch.

“Anytime I see these trucks, I’m like, ‘These guys are going to fall through.’”

Ashford Rosenberg, policy director of Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance, reported similar scenarios in the Gulf of Mexico, reminding people that once working waterfronts are gone, they don’t come back.

“The culture and heritage of commercial fisheries, the value is something you can’t really quantify,” she said.

Low prices also hurt fisheries management. For example, fishermen fund research in the black cod (or sablefish) fishery in Alaska, but since that market crashed, next year’s survey is not happening.

“Our surveys are critical, especially with unprecedented climate change,” said Peterson.

Because of COVID and other problems, many federal surveys were not completed. Balzano said that means that oftentimes zeros are inserted instead of data, which throws off stock assessments used by regulators to set catch limits.

Many fishermen had cameras installed on their boats to collect better information, but after 10 years regulators have barely used the data for meaningful changes to management.

Martens raised an additional problem: Scientists are loath to change a survey they have been doing continuously for 40 years, but the fish are no longer where they were at that time of year decades ago.

Church, of the Fishermen’s Alliance, said increasing collaborative research, where fishermen take scientists on their boats or use equipment to take oceanic measurements, is vital. Fishermen are at sea every day, she said, and with ocean conditions changing so rapidly real-time data is essential as regulators follow an ecosystem- based management approach.

“We really want to be a leader and use fishermen’s knowledge of the ocean,” she said. “All fishermen are scientists on the water.”

While management grapples with how to adapt to species moving into new areas, fishermen find themselves unable to fish because they don’t have necessary permits. The permits they do have in some cases are for species that are no longer local.

Josh Todd, Alex’s son, is 22 and traveled with his father to D.C. Martens said Josh is thinking of what fisheries he will be focusing on, what permits he may need, what investments he may need to make.

The USDA has offered infrastructure and other loans to help small businesses like farmers, Martens said.

But those supports do not exist for fishermen. For this reason FCC members welcomed a letter sent by Reps. Keating and Moulton, as well as Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren and more than 30 other Congressmen, calling for the Farm Bill, a major piece of agriculture law considered every five years, to include language that allows commercial fishermen and seafood processors to access USDA loan and grant programs.

FCC members and small-boat fishermen from across the country have traveled to D.C. regularly since the group was formed in 2013. Several of the initiatives they have advocated for, including the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, have become law.

A highlight of the visit was meeting Congressman Rob Wittman, a Republican from Virginia. He regaled the group with stories of commercial fishing with his son, who like many fishermen from the Cape, is involved in different fisheries.

Wittman said his son was on the water that day and recently told him that when expenses were factored in, “he made 87 cents.”

The Congressman showed the group pictures and videos of him helping his son out, which he does for the love of it.

“They are always after me because I am not baiting fast enough,” he said with a laugh.

Wittman couldn’t resist sharing pictures of his young grandson on the deck staring out to sea at dawn, working on the boat and then asleep on the drive home.

The fishermen in the group shared their own stories, Louw shared a picture of an enormous tuna he caught, and Wittman took the group into his office where dozens of fish hung on the wall.

Between meetings Louw checked in with his girlfriend Alexandra Hitchcock (the daughter of a fisherman and a small business owner herself) and with the chef at his new retail shop and eatery in Orleans, Surfside Seafood. “I’m just cruising around D.C. in a blacked-out Escalade,” he told her.

The two days ended with a visit to the office of Senator Jeanne Shaheen, an engaged New Hampshire Democrat, where Louw appreciated the knowledge of the Senator’s staff person.

“She was vested in the topics we were talking about. She had an appreciation and understanding of the issues,” said Louw.

A few hours later, Louw was using a departure delay at the airport to check a marine traffic system to track his boat, F/V Three Graces. The expected arrival home was between midnight and 1 a.m., about the time Louw would be back in Harwich, too. He would unload and take fresh scallops to Surfside Seafood in Orleans for the busy Memorial Day weekend.

Looked like another night of little sleep.



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