About Matt Tinning

Executive Director, Marine Fish Conservation Network. Follow me: @MattTinning.

House bill renews fight against seafood fraud; wins accolades from US fishermen

In some good news from Capitol Hill today, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) re-introduced critical legislation aimed at combating rampant seafood mislabeling and moving us towards a traceability system for seafood bought and sold in the United States. He was joined by a bipartisan group of original cosponsors: Walter Jones (R-NC), John Tierney (D-MA), Bill Keating (D-MA), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Jo Bonner (R-AL). Below is our statement commending the new legislation.

Washington, DC—American fishermen lose money every day as a result of mislabeled seafood, but Congress is renewing its efforts to change that. In a bold step towards creating a national seafood traceability system that could combat rampant seafood mislabeling, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers today re-introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act.

The House legislation, of which Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the lead sponsor, has the potential to lay the groundwork for a national seafood traceability system in the United States. It comes in the wake of yet another round of revelations about the extent of seafood mislabeling. A study released by advocacy group Oceana last month found that one-third of 1215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled according to US Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Matt Tinning, Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said today: “Seafood fraud hurts fishermen around the country, from Boston to the Bering Sea. In the face of overwhelming evidence about the scale of the problem, our government must act with urgency. Thankfully, some leaders in Congress have got the memo; today’s bill takes a stand for America’s fishermen.”

Tom Dempsey, Policy Director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham, MA agrees. “More than ever, consumers are looking to support sustainable American fisheries. But, without transparency in the supply chain, it’s nearly impossible to make that kind of informed decision. Whether it’s horse meat sold as beef or some cheap seafood substitute touted as quality American product, we can’t tolerate fraud when it comes to our food. It’s unfair and unsafe. The SAFE Seafood Act can move us towards a level playing field that America’s commercial fishermen need and consumers deserve.”

Shockingly, Oceana’s study found just seven of 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were correctly labeled, with tests identifying the remaining 113 samples as another fish. Those findings have been greeted with dismay by commercial red snapper fishermen.

“It’s frustrating as hell”, said Donny Waters, a co-founder of Gulf Coast Professional Fishermen, who fishes primarily for red snapper out of Pensacola, FL. “I work hard every day to bring a quality product to American consumers. It’s been shocking to discover how often seafood lovers around the country are victims of a bait and switch. They deserve far better—and so do I.”

House to disaster-hit fishermen: you’re on your own

Today the House of Representatives will take long-awaited action to assist victims of Superstorm Sandy. But shamefully, disaster-hit fishermen will receive little or no respite.

We’ve been tracking and promoting efforts to secure fisheries disaster funding here at FishHQ for some months. Readers know the Sandy legislation that passed the Senate included $150 million for those devastated by fisheries disasters. Potential beneficiaries include fishermen in New York and New Jersey who’s livelihoods have been destroyed by Sandy. They also include those devastated by analogous disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and New England — all formally recognized by the Secretary of Commerce, and all caused by factors entirely outside fishermen’s control.

A package crafted by House leadership, however, excluded fisheries disaster funding. And last night, the House Rules Committee chose to allow just 13 of 94 amendments that had been filed by Members to be offered on the House floor. Among those excluded: amendments from Massachusetts and New Jersey lawmakers that sought to reinstate fisheries disaster funding. A substantial amendment package that will be offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) — to add an additional $33 billion in funds, bringing the total package close to the Senate level — includes just $5 million in fisheries disaster funding, and limits beneficiaries to those suffering Sandy-related losses.

The House’s failure to provide disaster assistance to fishermen in desperate need is outrageous; and unfortunately, the odds of overcoming their intransigence through any Senate or Conference action do not look good.

Ghosts of 2012: fisheries funding is unfinished business for the new Congress

As members of the 113th Congress are sworn in today, they face inboxes overflowing with business left unfinished by the 112th. Two of the biggest outstanding items — the Sandy relief package and resolution of the budget sequestration extended in the ‘fiscal cliff’ agreement — have serious implications for our nation’s fisheries.

Let’s look first at the Sandy debacle. The frustration expressed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie yesterday is shared by fishermen around the country who have suffered harm as a result of natural disasters hitting specific fisheries upon which their livelihoods depend. That’s because the Sandy relief package is the vehicle through which such funding, if it’s to be provided at all, will be appropriated. As FishHQ readers know, the package that passed the Senate in December included $150 million in critical fisheries disaster funding. However, the outgoing House, despite promises from its leadership to the contrary, failed to schedule a vote.

The good news is that Speaker Boehner has now re-committed to getting this done, and has slated House floor time for tomorrow and January 15. But even if a relief package ultimately does pass, there’s no guarantee that fisheries disaster funding will survive. As we noted recently, some have misguidedly attacked fishery disaster funding as ‘pork’, and a concerted effort to strip the funding was mounted in the Senate — and can be expected in the House.

And then there’s sequestration. Yep, you’re right, that was supposed to be settled in any fiscal cliff deal. But the best New Year’s Eve negotiators could do was defer across-the-board spending cuts by two months. As we’ve noted before, if sequestration were to take effect it would spell serious trouble for the information infrastructure upon which modern fisheries management depends. Specifically, it could rip 8.2 percent out of the ‘Operations, Research and Facilities’ (ORF) account of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, imposing further austerity on the ‘wet side’ of NOAA, with both the health of our fisheries and the prevalence of fishing opportunities destined to suffer.

Everyone in Washington has a theory about how the sequestration drama will play out. But amidst all the punditry and political games, it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of what the on-the-water impacts of across-the-board cuts would mean.

On sequestration, and fisheries disaster funding, the 113th Congress has plenty of work to do.

Word to the wise: salmon ain’t pork

The tragically epic proportions of Superstorm Sandy remain fresh in the nation’s memory — and its painful impacts are still being felt by many in the region. Congress is inching towards passing a disaster assistance package that can provide some measure of relief. That’s welcome news for all those who suffered in Sandy’s path — including the region’s fishermen.

Last month we urged Congress to act during its lame duck session, to provide funding for fisheries disasters that have been officially declared — not only in states impacted by Sandy, but also certain fisheries in New England, Mississippi and Alaska where a formal disaster declaration has been made by the Secretary of Commerce.

With the Sandy disaster package being prepared, our friends in Congress stepped up and successfully included $150 million in funding to help those devastated by these disasters. In response, a number of media outlets and commentators have condemned such spending, labeling it as ‘pork’.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has been a champion for fishermen and coastal communities affected by fisheries disasters.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has been among those lawmakers who have championed the cause of fishermen and coastal communities devastated by fisheries disasters.

Well. Let’s be very clear about one thing: the fishermen and coastal communities who are struggling to survive in the face of these disasters desperately need our help. Fisheries disaster declarations are no arbitrary process: they are made in accordance with statute, specifically the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Among the many hoops that must be cleared to satisfy the National Marine Fisheries Service Disaster Assistance Policy, the causes of any claimed disaster must be beyond the control of fishery managers to mitigate through conservation and management measures. In other words, economic hardship precipitated by overfishing or other poor management practices are not grounds to make a claim.

Sure, let’s have a debate about fiscal responsibility and the deficit. It’s only proper that lawmakers and interest groups scrutinize government spending and debate the difficult tradeoffs that must be made between revenue and expenditure. But to target emergency funding for fishermen and coastal communities who through no fault of their own find their livelihoods jeopardized, and to characterize it as some kind of new “bridge to nowhere”, is deeply insulting.

Just like Sandy’s victims, these folks deserve our compassion, not contempt. We’ll continue to work with our friends on Capitol Hill, and do everything possible to ensure they receive some measure of relief.

DeMint resignation is a big deal for fish

The DC political world is atwitter today with news that Senator Jim DeMint will exit the Senate next month to lead the Heritage Foundation. This is a huge development — not only for political conservatives, but also for fish geeks.

Jim DeMint was in line to succeed Texan Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as Ranking Member on the powerful Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Accordingly, he would have joined Alaska’s Mark Begich atop the panel with oversight of the Department of Commerce, including NOAA.

There was real disquiet among DC ocean types about what that would have meant: not because of Senator DeMint’s prominent fiscal and social conservatism, but because of his institutional tactics and approach to procedure. DeMint would have been the Senate’s first tea party chairman, and it was widely anticipated that he’d employ the same stonewalling tactics he’s used repeatedly since joining the Senate in his new role. Republican committee staff, most expected, would completely turn over. And a Senate committee with a long history of bipartisan action, many feared, would become ineffectual — potentially for the next six years.

With today’s announcement, that threat recedes. Although positions are not yet confirmed for next Congress, Senator John Thune (R-SD) is likely to be the new Ranking Member. He is a conservative Republican, but he’s no iconoclast. For those who want to see meaningful and functional oversight of NOAA in the years to come, The Heritage Foundation’s gain is also ours.

NOAA proposes new coral listings under ESA

Don’t start your weekend just yet.

A draft proposal released by the National Marine Fisheries Service today seeks to list 66 coral species under the Endangered Species Act. That’s a huge number, potentially more than doubling the total number of listed species under NOAA’s purview.

Staghorn coral; Photo credit Frank Starmer; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Staghorn coral; Photo credit Frank Starmer; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

More from the agency’s announcement:

  • “In the Pacific, seven species would be listed as endangered and 52 as threatened.
  • “In the Caribbean, five would be listed as endangered and two as threatened.
  • “In addition, we are proposing that two Caribbean species—elkhorn and staghorn corals—already listed under the ESA be reclassified from threatened to endangered.”

Today’s proposal doesn’t come out of the blue. On the contrary, the Biological Review Team that considered the listings was convened more than two years ago; and a public engagement process was conducted by the agency earlier this year. Still, it’s fair to expect that this issue is about to become a whole lot more prominent and attract far more interest — including from fishermen.

Should fishermen be worried? Well, yes. The most frightening part of today’s agency proposal is the science that underpins it. Twenty-five percent of marine fish call coral reefs home. And this makes clear that they face myriad threats. Of the 19 specific threats identified, the three major ones relate to climate change — namely rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification and disease. For the last generation the principal threat to the health of US fisheries has been overfishing. Today’s announcement is another reminder that for the next generation the array of threats may be more diverse — and the solutions may be even more challenging.

How any final ESA listing impacts fishing opportunities remains to be seen. It’s worth noting that there’ll be no immediate action. Rather, this starts the clock on a 90-day comment period that will include public hearings. It’s also important to remember that any final listing should do nothing to reduce catch limits in any federal fishery — although it may have implications for how those fish are caught.

The bottom line is that ocean fisheries don’t exist in a vacuum — they’re part of a complex marine ecosystem that must be healthy if our fisheries are to remain productive. Today’s announcement is a reminder that in key parts of that ecosystem, all is not well.

Lame duck Congress must provide fisheries disaster funding

Senators and Members of Congress have returned to Washington this week for what promises to be an action-packed ‘lame duck’ session. All eyes are on the fiscal cliff — the resolution of which, as I wrote last month, will potentially have a big impact on the health of our nation’s fisheries. But for many fishermen there’s another urgent action item on the congressional ‘to do’ list: providing emergency funding to alleviate the impact of federal fisheries disasters.

As FishHQ readers know well, America’s federal fisheries are increasingly sustainable and healthy. But in some specific fisheries this year, external climactic shocks have taken their toll. In September, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank issued disaster declarations for certain fisheries in the Northeast, Mississippi and Alaska; and since then Hurricane Sandy has done enormous damage to fisheries in New Jersey and New York.

It should come as little surprise that the difference between a token and a meaningful federal disaster declaration is cold hard cash. And in case anyone was in any doubt, that’s not a commodity in boundless supply right now in Washington, DC. President Obama and the Republican leadership in Congress may have adopted very different negotiating positions for how to address the fiscal cliff, but both agree that some serious belt-tightening will be involved.

Still, the lame duck is likely to consider emergency funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and potentially also for farmers devastated by drought. Our view is that fisheries disaster assistance needs to be appropriated in any such funding package that gains traction on Capitol Hill. And earlier today we wrote to House and Senate leaders to reinforce that view.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated as the lame duck session gets underway, and the potential for disaster funds to reach fishing communities in need becomes clearer.