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.

Victims of Sandy need help now – but they’re not the only ones

It’s no surprise to those of us who watch fisheries issues closely here in Washington that fisheries have gotten pulled into the political fisticuffs over a hurricane Sandy aid package. The uninitiated casual observer might easily wonder what’s fisheries got to do with Washington, and what’s Washington got to do with fisheries? As Sera has pointed out in the past, the ties are intricate and long-standing.

It’s unfortunate that funding fisheries disasters is being used to make a political point deriding Washington’s love of “pork”; a claim that, as Matt has pointed out, is grossly inaccurate. Those who are claiming that providing federal funding for fisheries as part of an aid package directly meant to help victims of Hurricane Sandy (that’s Sandy, not Isaac, or wildfires, or droughts or…) are frankly missing the forest for the trees.

There’s no question that Hurricane Sandy was the biggest disaster of 2012. It was literally a freak of nature, and it caused widespread damage the like of which we’ve rarely, if ever, seen. As such, the demand for aid was met with little questioning; with such a wide range of impact, politicians from up and down the east coast were met with little resistance when they asked for help. Nor should they have been.

But just because Sandy was the biggest disaster, and the most riveting to watch unfold on TV, doesn’t mean that other communities across the country suffered any less when disaster struck them. Unnoted by the national media, communities in Alaska suffered from disappearing salmon runs. In the Yukon River, a fishery generally valued at $1.5 million produced revenue of $0. This is a fishery that supports not only commercial and sports fishermen, whose businesses suffered from the disappearing fish, but subsistence fishermen, who suffer from the lack of food. As Alaska Senator Mark Begich tweeted in response to criticisms against “pork”, “This is about food & survival, and it’s serious.”

Equally serious is the condition of the New England groundfish fishery, where disappearing cod is leading to deep quota cuts. The exact reason for the fishery’s decline is unclear, but fishermen had been fishing according to science based catch limits, and pretty much all signs point to environmental causes, including changes in the ocean that are linked to climate change. Again, not a disaster noted by the national media, but that doesn’t mean the suffering of those affected by it isn’t all too real. In the words of Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, “this economic disaster is New England’s underwater equivalent of a drought, where the drops in stocks of fish are causing serious economic harm to fishing businesses, their families, and their communities. These people need help.”

A third disaster was declared in the Mississippi oyster and blue crab fisheries thanks to extreme droughts the year before. And when Hurricane Sandy hit, the Department of Commerce quickly granted fisheries disaster status to New York and New Jersey. It was the fourth, and certainly the biggest disaster. But do the people who suffered from it deserve aid any more than those who were already suffering?

The arguments of those who are insisting that this aid package is about Sandy and Sandy only have offered no good arguments as to why aid should be granted to the sufferers of one disaster, but not another. If the standard news cycle is any indication, Americans have short attention spans that are held by flashy things just until the next showy story comes around, be it a worthy topic like a natural disaster or gun control, or a lesser one, like the Bieb just being the Bieb.

130111 news search google trend sandy vs the bieb

In an editorial this week USA Today declared that states asking for funding that had nothing to do with Sandy should put their outstretched hands back in their pockets. And while beating the drum for federal spending cuts damn the consequences is certainly in-line with the mood in Washington, it ignores the fact that nature on steroids is in many ways a result of another area in which we’re pretty out of control—fossil fuel consumption. As long as the government is subsidizing the activities that are leading to the unhinging of nature for the benefit of one part of the American public, spending a meager $150 million to help some of the American’s whose lives are in upheaval as a result of these policies is the least they can do, whether that upheaval came in the showiest storm of the season or not.

In the joined voices of the Senators from New York and New Jersey, who are facing the challenges of rebuilding from a disaster first hand, “All disaster victims have a right to expect their government to help them rebuild, whether they live in Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, New York or New Jersey.”

Or Alaska. Or Mississippi. Or Massachusetts. Just sayin’.

The Usual Suspects

121213 Sushi #traceability

Original photo credit: flickr user avlxyz CC BY 2.0

What: “White tuna”, “wild-caught salmon”, and “red snapper”

Where: New York City

How: New York City is the latest metropolitan area found to have a high incidence of seafood mislabeling.

The Story: Oceana continues its series of recent investigations into seafood fraud by testing samples from New York area restaurants and markets. As with Los Angeles and Boston, it may be hard to find correctly marketed seafood in the Big Apple; 39 percent of the 142 samples tested were mislabeled. Large, national chain retailers had the lowest incidence of seafood fraud at 12 percent, while 40 percent of samples tested from smaller, independent retailers were mislabeled.

Researchers found that all of the 16 sushi restaurants included in the study had mislabeled seafood. The most common culprit at sushi bars is marketing the infamous, gastric upset-inducing escolar as “white tuna”, a label that the FDA has established as only appropriate for canned albacore tuna. Language barriers may be the cause of some of these instances of mislabeling, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana and an author of the study. “The bottom line is that if you go to a sushi bar, it’s a good idea to ask questions because sushi is an art form. They’re very proud of the fish they serve. So there’s no harm in asking, ‘Well, what is that?’”

Other examples of mislabeling found in the city include farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught Pacific salmon, and thirteen different species of fish inaccurately being marketed as red snapper. One fish subbed in for red snapper is tilefish, a fish that the FDA has warned contains high amounts of mercury, and so shouldn’t be consumed by children and pregnant or nursing women. “It’s unacceptable that New York seafood lovers are being duped more than one-third of the time when purchasing certain types of fish,” says Warner.

What We Can Do: With a complex supply chain and various motives for not labeling seafood correctly, finding the source of seafood fraud in the industry is difficult. As long as we continue without a reliable system of seafood traceability in our country, seafood fraud is likely to remain a problem. Until then, ask questions about your seafood. “If vendors don’t know that their customers are demanding this kind of information, they’re going to get away with it forever,” Warner stated.

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.

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.

 

New representation for many US fishermen

When I wrote earlier in the week that this was a ‘change’ election for fisheries, I was thinking in part about fishermen around the country who will have new representation in the United States Congress. Many fishermen have relied on the same representatives to promote their interests in Washington for years or even decades, only to see them retiring or defeated in their reelection efforts. I won’t bore FishHQ readers with a detailed analysis of every freshman and their likely fisheries bent (which takes restraint for a junkie like me…), but I do want to flag some key places where things are a-changin’. Stay tuned for analysis of Senate turnover, and shifts in committee and leadership slots. For today, we’ll focus on the House.

It should be noted up front that there will be plenty of constants in the House of Representatives over the next two years. Republicans retained control, for one thing. Furthermore, a number of Members who faced spirited challenges in coastal districts were returned by voters. In California, for example, Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps has represented her Santa Barbara-centered coastal district since 2003, and prevailed despite being a top Republican target. In Florida, freshman Republican Congressman Steve Southerland was returned despite a spirited challenge that attracted the support of many in the ocean community. But in numerous other districts, the oath of office will be taken by someone new on January 3rd.

In New England, we’ve known for almost a year that generational change was certain — ever since veteran Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) announced his retirement. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this transition. Frank was a passionate advocate for fishermen in Massachusetts, most especially those from the Port of New Bedford, in his district. He routinely raised fisheries issues at the highest levels of the administration. Indeed, rumor has it that he made specific fisheries asks of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the midst of complex negotiations regarding Wall Street reform — over which he had enormous leverage as Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Love Barney or not, it’s simply impossible to imagine anyone filling those shoes. New Bedford will now be represented by Congressman Bill Keating. Rep. Keating was elected to the House in 2011, and will add New Bedford to his representation of other Massachusetts fishermen — including those on the Cape.

Elsewhere in New England, there’s déjà vu for New Hampshire fishermen, with Carol Shea-Porter winning her rematch against Frank Guinta. Shea-Porter previously held the seat, from 2007-2011.

Down in Florida, there’s a similarly seismic House transition. Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has been a tireless advocate for those who fish out of the Florida Keys. Her seniority in the House majority, combined with her political acumen, made her a key congressional player. That may be maintained to some degree, with her continued tenure in the House assured. But redistricting means that she no longer represents The Keys; and incumbent Republican David Rivera, who was in line to take the mantle, was defeated by Democratic challenger Joe Garcia. As a freshman serving in the minority, Garcia will need to work hard to ensure his fishermen maintain their considerable influence on Capitol Hill.

There will be new faces from out west, too. One freshman who is likely to emerge as a prominent voice on fisheries is Congressman-elect Jared Huffman. Huffman’s new district spans the Northern California coast — an area he has represented in the State Assembly since 2006. Further north, in Washington state, powerful Democratic appropriator Norm Dicks is retiring — another ‘old bull’ departure that will change the tenor of Capitol Hill deal-making. He’s being succeeded by Derek Kilmer, a State Senator, whose new district will include Gig Harbor.

Finally, the new House will include a freshman from Hawaii. The second congressional district, which encompasses almost all of Hawaii with the exception of Honolulu, will be represented by Tulsi Gabbard, Gabbard racked up a whopping 89% of the vote on Tuesday, so holding her seat is unlikely to be at the top of her list of concerns. She previously served as Hawaii’s youngest-ever state legislator and is an Iraq War veteran.

Missing the election already?? Not to worry — there’s one more coastal House race yet to be decided. The important third congressional district of Louisiana is headed for a December 8th run-off between two incumbent Republicans: Charles Boustany and Jeff Landry. Louisiana’s shrimpers are likely to be watching closely, and so will we.

I’ll have more on the fascinating emerging dynamics of the 113th Congress soon. We know y’all will be waiting on the edge of your seats.

Happy election day!

Well, it’s finally here. After countless hours of electioneering and over a billion dollars spent by candidates fishing for your votes, it all comes down to today.

Here at FishHQ we don’t have a partisan preference, and we’re not endorsing either aspirant for the White House. First and foremost, that’s because issues in fisheries almost invariably transcend partisan lines. Check out what I wrote whilst attending the Republican National Convention in Tampa back in August for why we believe that when it comes to fisheries, party designation doesn’t mean a whole lot.

But that isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t consider fisheries when you vote. There are some candidates who are champions on Capitol Hill, and others who have worked consistently against the interests of commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. We urge you to research the candidates before casting your ballot. One useful tool for recreational anglers may be Keep America Fishing’s presidential candidate questionnaire, which you can check out on their website. Alternatively, you can take some inspiration from the views of other hunters and anglers, gauged recently by Chesapeake Beach Consulting. Or, perhaps you can just follow the lead of Legal Seafood, whose presidential straw poll of diners has had Obama supporters ordering the mahi-mahi and Romney partisans opting for the pan-seared cod. Results will be released today, and we’re betting they’ll be analysed more thoroughly than the AP exit polls….

Voters won’t just be choosing candidates in the voting booth today. Those animated about the potential for GMO salmon to be approved for human consumption will be closely watching the results of Proposition 37 in California. Ocean Conservancy’s George Leonard has been an active supporter of the ballot initiative, and his take for National Geographic is worth reading. Ezra Klein also has an “everything you need to know” on Prop 37 for the Washington Post. Across the border in Oregon an initiative to ban non-tribal commercial salmon fishing with gillnets in the Columbia River will be decided today.

We’ll be analysing the results closely tonight, and sharing our perspectives on the outcome in the coming days. You can look to FishHQ to have the most thorough and insightful analysis of what the results will mean for fisheries in the 113th Congress and over the next four years.

In Sandy’s wake: our satellite crisis

Along much of the East Coast, countless communities that fell in Sandy’s path are just beginning a long and painful process — of assessing the damage and starting to rebuild. Our hearts are with all of them. Yesterday we provided a wrap-up of some of the news reports that focused on fishing community impacts. Today, as President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie visit Atlantic City, the Jersey Coast anglers with whom we work are especially in our thoughts.

Beyond the immediate priority of responding to the ongoing disaster and doing everything possible to speed the process of recovery, it is appropriate in time to ponder the lessons we can learn from having endured an extreme weather event of this magnitude. One urgent lesson relates to our nation’s climate satellite capacity.

On October 26, before Sandy made landfall, the New York Times published a frightening article sounding the alarm on the looming climate satellite capacity gap. As existing polar satellites near the end of their lifespan, the launch date for their replacement has continually slipped. Responsible officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been left scrambling to find ways to avoid two years or more during which the accuracy of critical weather forecasting could be jeopardized. Another round of urgent restructuring of NOAA’s satellite program was ordered last month, but we’re now at a point where no easy choices remain. As the Times reports, an independent review team recently warned that we’re facing a capacity gap with the potential to “threaten life and property”, perhaps as early as 2015.

How did we reach this point? Clearly there is enough blame to go around. Austere federal budgets are blamed by some for the delays. But, according to independent reviews, a long history of program dysfunction is also at fault. For fishermen directly impacted by Sandy, the prospect of less accurate forecasting when future hurricanes strike will be a difficult pill to swallow. But a second source of concern should be the potential for satellite program challenges at NOAA to consume the agency, and jeopardize the effectiveness of NOAA’s “wet side” performance.

For many years, ocean advocates have been concerned that ballooning satellite costs could force funding cuts in ocean-related programs. Those concerns were realized in the FY13 funding request, and are now playing out on Capitol Hill. In this austere fiscal environment, efforts to squeeze additional funding to the satellite program from other parts of the agency are likely to continue. And that could well mean further curtailing federal investments that are vital to the health and productivity of our nation’s fisheries.

Addressing the enormous challenges facing the satellite program must be a national priority. And, critically, dedicated appropriations must be provided by Congress to get the job done. Otherwise, we face the prospect of a cash-strapped agency under enormous political pressure raiding entirely separate programs that happen to coexist under the NOAA umbrella. That could have dire consequences.

Sandy is the latest wakeup call for Congress and the administration to do whatever it takes to prevent or minimize the climate satellite gap. However, diverting precious pennies that are essential to the health of our ocean and the productivity of our nation’s fisheries won’t fix the mess, and could very well create another. For the fishermen, coastal communities and consumers who depend on healthy wild ocean fisheries — and for all Americans who rely on precise weather forecasting — urgently prioritizing and separately funding climate satellites is the only viable choice.

Fish stocks and sequestration

It’s silly season in the nation’s capital.

When politicos aren’t working themselves into a lather over who’s up and who’s down in the presidential and congressional campaigns, they’re working themselves into a lather over budget sequestration. We’re not hearing ‘fiscal cliff’ and ‘fisheries’ in the same sentence too often just yet, but that may change.

For those of you who make the decidedly rational choice to spend your time on the water rather than follow the minutiae of the federal budget, here’s a quick sequestration primer: As part of a deal to break the impasse over the debt ceiling, Congress passed legislation called the Budget Control Act back in August of last year. That law established a Joint Select Committee to forge bipartisan consensus on parts of the federal budget to cut and how to raise new revenues. When the committee failed spectacularly, the law’s automatic trigger of $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over nine years was invoked. The first of those years is 2013.

Many headlines have focused on the impact that sequestration would have on our national security capabilities and defense-related jobs. But sequestration goes far beyond that. A White House report issued last month telegraphed total cuts of $109 billion in 2013. Digging into the details of that report confirms that a sequester of 8.2 percent could be in store for the so-called ‘Operations, Research and Facilities’ (ORF) account of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That esoteric-sounding account matters to fishermen, big time. For example, it provides funding for stock assessments, cooperative research, and recreational fisheries statistics. And we’re not just talking bells and whistles: it’s funding the core information infrastructure upon which our entire science-based fishery management system depends. ORF covers more than just fisheries, and the butter is being spread thin; the account has been squeezed badly in recent years by the ballooning costs of NOAA’s satellite program. And, as a new fact sheet released by environmentalists on sequester impacts points out, the sequestration plan would dramatically escalate that dangerous dynamic.

This stuff matters. Without the information on our fisheries that we need, heightened uncertainty creeps into management plans — which leads to the provision of more precautionary quotas that reduce fishing opportunities for commercial fishermen and recreational anglers alike. In other words, the sequester’s not just a looming threat to defense jobs; it could well threaten fishing jobs and the well-being of coastal communities.

There’s no end of theories about where the sequestration conversation will go after November 6th. Everyone seems to be betting that, with the heat of the election campaign behind us, lawmakers will find an alternative approach in consultation with the president — whether it be a reelected Mr. Obama or a victorious Mr. Romney. But those very same optimists are hard-pressed to explain what the specifics of any such deal might look like.

A lot is riding on this election and its aftermath — including for constituencies that aren’t necessarily the focus of the presidential stump speeches and debates. Next time you hear talk of the fiscal cliff, it’s worth keeping in mind that our nation’s fishermen, coastal communities and seafood lovers are among those dangerously close to the precipice.

House returns from recess, steps up for billfish

Lawmakers returning to DC after summer recess were greeted with headlines confidently predicting they’d achieve a whole lotta nothing between now and November 6th. The House of Representatives reacted with the radical step of … actually doing something. And that ‘something’ was a move that those of us who care about healthy wild ocean fisheries can enthusiastically applaud: passing legislation to advance billfish conservation.

The Billfish Conservation Act of 2012 is all the things Capitol Hill isn’t supposed to be any more: it’s common sense; it’s bipartisan; and it’s supported by diverse constituencies of interest. It’s good for American fishermen, good for the national economy, and good for our marine environment.

Ken Hinman, President of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (and, I note with pride, one of the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s founding members), has been one of the legislation’s key supporters. His timely op-ed in today’s Orlando Sentinel is a powerful reminder of why these magnificent “lions and tigers of the sea” deserve and need our help.

The International Game Fish Association is another group that has been a strong leader on this issue. Rob Kramer, IGFA’s President, said in a statement yesterday that the bill “would help turn the tide on rapidly declining stocks of sailfish, marlin and spearfish.” “This is great news for recreational anglers and for people working in tourism, sportfishing and marine businesses,” Kramer concluded.

Congressman Jeff Miller (R-Florida) is the lead sponsor of HR 2706, the Billfish Conservation Act.

Exactly right.

Hats off to the House of Representatives for defying the naysayers: proving that meaningful floor action is possible in a polarized Congress in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, and on the best possible issue.

With time in the 112th Congress running short, the time is now for the Senate to show similar resolve. Senators: be assured that recreational anglers and other ocean conservationists of all stripes will be watching.