Guest column: Fishermen monitor bills in Washington, D.C.

Whale entanglement issues in fixed gear fisheries are the topic of most dock talk in the Northeast and Northwest this winter. At the same time, however, on the other side of the roaring storm of whale-related issues, a slate of fisheries bills in Washington, DC has been progressing at a steady pace. None of these bills is earth-shattering on its own (that’s a good thing). But if and when they move forward they could provide some real improvements in fisheries policy and additional support for important programs.

Noah Oppenheim
Noah Oppenheim is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

First up is the Young Fishermen’s Development Act (YFDA), sponsored by Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) in the House and Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) in the Senate. Initially introduced in the spring of 2017, YFDA would direct Sea Grant and NOAA to establish the Young Fishermen’s Development Grant Program to provide fiscal and technical assistance to young fishermen and their advocates. The bill establishes standards for grant awards made under the program, including priorities like seamanship, safety training, repair and maintenance, and policy literacy. Existing programs like the successful Eastern Maine Skippers Program would certainly qualify, and indeed Maine’s approach to supporting its young fishermen is a model for the nation. YFDA has some legs in the House, having been “marked up” by the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife subcommittee in January. A couple more steps and the bill could pass the House, awaiting similar action in the Senate.
Another bill making its way through the House is the Climate-Ready Fisheries Act of 2019, sponsored by Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-South Carolina). This bill would require a five-part report on the efforts undertaken by NOAA and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to anticipate and adapt to the impacts of warming ocean temperatures. The report would include an inventory of the efforts made so far in fisheries policy and management in direct response to climate impacts on fisheries and evaluate their effectiveness. It would identify existing knowledge gaps and process shortfalls that inhibit the Fishery Councils and the Commission from making decisions in response to real-time environmental conditions. Finally, it would make recommendations for how to improve the system. To me, this report is a critical step at a critical time: a synthesis of what we’ve done so far in the fisheries/climate arena and a set of recommendations for the future, when climate impacts to fisheries are predicted to be more unpredictable and intense, would be useful for everyone working to make our management system better.
Closer to home, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) last year introduced the Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act of 2019. As the title implies, the bill would direct NOAA to perform an inventory and assessment of the impacts of acidifying waters on coastal communities every seven years. The bill requires the feds to coordinate with state and local governments that have produced their own impact assessments. In Maine’s case, this would enable the work of the Maine Climate Council to feed directly into the approach that the federal agency takes to address ocean acidification. Landings readers may be familiar with the Council’s efforts to bolster maritime trades, including of course fisheries and mariculture. A coordinated effort to inventory the effects of lower pH (higher acidity) in the ocean lends credence to the local-scale efforts taking place all along Maine’s coast. This bill has already passed the House of Representatives and awaits a Senate companion bill.
Last on my list is another bill being advanced by the Alaska delegation, the American Fisheries Advisory Committee Act. Many readers may be aware of the Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program (S-K), which is used primarily to provide research funds to benefit fisheries, fishermen, and fishing communities. These grant funds are acquired through a series of tariffs on ocean product imports dating from the 1930s and total around $150 million each year; the most significant contributor today is pearl import levies. But S-K funds are generally provided after applications are evaluated by NOAA, not fishing industry members. This bill would establish instead regional stakeholder advisory committees to vet and approve these grant expenditures. The bill has been moving quickly in both the House and Senate and stands a very good chance of passage.
It would be an oversight not to mention progress being made on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). The MSA has been a political whipping boy for the past several years, which is a huge shame in my opinion. Fisheries legislation should not be politicized, and I believe there’s a real opportunity evolving today to influence the MSA reauthorization process. Representative Jared Huffman (D-California), the Chairman of the House Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee, has been convening MSA listening sessions across the country to hear from industry members their vision for federal fisheries policy. The next session will be in Boston sometime around the Seafood Expo. Not only are the panels filled with actual leaders from industry, but there’s also a public comment opportunity. If you’re in the area and interested, consider attending once the time and location are announced.
Washington is often the last thing on Mainers’ minds, for good reason. Your Congressional delegation, however, has opportunities to support meaningful legislation this year and in many cases they have been leading the charge. If you want to support their efforts, find them or their staff at the Fishermen’s Forum this year, or call their offices in Maine or Washington and let them know. That’s democracy in action, and your calls might make the difference.