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.

Panhandle smackdown

Of all the extraordinary moments in today’s storm-before-the-storm House Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Panama City FL, one stood out as capturing the day best. Dr. Richard Merrick—one of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s most senior officials—delivered serious and thoughtful testimony on the state of our fisheries. And staring back at him was an empty chair and a nameplate inscribed with the name of hearing “host” Congressman Steve Southerland.

On the one hand: no big deal, right? In Washington DC Members of Congress slip in and out of hearing rooms all the time. On the other hand: WTF??? Mr. Southerland inveighs against NOAA at every opportunity he gets. And he’s always searching out a new soapbox from which to demand “answers” of the Agency on items of alleged concern to his Florida panhandle fishing constituents. He explained in his opening statement today that he’d worked for over a year to bring the hearing to his District. He proudly proclaimed it as a “promise kept”. Yet when NMFS dispatched its Chief Scientist 1,000 miles into the path of an incoming hurricane to spend his Saturday trying to address Mr. Southerland’s amorphous concerns, the freshman apparently had better things to do for half of his five-minute testimony. You gotta be kidding….

Dr. Richard Merrick of the National Marine Fisheries Service delivers testimony to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings and … an empty chair.

Also in the “wow, twelve years working with Congress and I’ve never seen anything like it before” category: the outpouring of anger from Gulf fishermen against Congressman Southerland’s extremist views on our nation’s fisheries and oceans. Over 100 people packed the hearing room in Panama City, and sentiment ran overwhelmingly against the local Member’s record, which has seen him taking his marching orders on fisheries from a fringe element of Charter Boat Captains in his home town. Think about that for a moment: You work for over a year to bring a fisheries hearing to your hometown, and when you finally pull it off the numbers run against you 9-1. Your simplistic applause lines fall flat with fishermen who expect a level of sophistication from elected officials who presume to lecture fishery managers and scientists on how to exploit a natural resource on which their livelihoods depend. A remarkable and sustained standing ovation went not to the hometown member but to lifelong Gulf of Mexico commercial fisherman Donny Waters who basically told Mr. Southerland to study up or butt the hell out. Captain Mike Jennings, one of the Gulf’s best Charter Boat Captains, told him to follow through on his small-government rhetoric and stop trying to micromanage our fisheries. #BAM

If you have a lazy three hours, all fisheries tragics really would do well to watch the hearing webcast in full. It should be posted here by the committee staff soon. Alternatively or additionally, why don’t you read what Gulf commercial fisherman Jim Clements wrote in the Panama City News Herald this week about why Congressman Southerland has become Ocean Enemy Number One. Or you could read Panama City commercial fisherman Russell Underwood, also writing for the “hometown paper”, on why he fears politicking rather than the interests of fishermen brought the congressional circus to town. Or you could read Alabama power-couple commercial fisherman David Walker and Charter Boat Captain Troy Frady tell readers of the Mobile-Press-Register about why their interest in a healthy fishery unites them in opposition to Mr. Southerland’s extremist approach. Or you could read lifelong Gulf private angler Tommy Warren’s piece in the Tallahassee Democrat on why Mr. Southerland’s “solutions” could take us back to the bad old overfishing days of old.

You probably get the idea.… Mr. Southerland thought he could score cheap political points by grandstanding on fisheries with easy applause lines about how we could all catch more fish if Big Bad Washington would just get off our backs. Instead, 18 months into his term in the United States House of Representatives, he’s found himself about as popular with the Gulf’s fishermen as Hurricane Isaac is right now with Republican National Convention organizers.

Stay tuned to FishHQ for updates on whether this week’s Panhandle Smackdown of Congress’s Ocean Enemy Number One knocks some sense into Mr. Southerland. Here’s hoping….