Homeland Security Commissioner Kerlikowske Meets With Gulf Seafood

by / Newsroom Ink on August 27, 2015
Members of the Gulf Seafood Institute joined a Gulf seafood and agriculture panel in New Orleans to inform US Customs and Border Patrol, Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, of pressing seafood issues like H2-B in the Gulf of Mexico. (L_R) Harlon Pearce, Jim Gossen, Jennifer Jenkins, Commissioner Kerlikowske, Chris Nelson and Frank Randol. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Members of the Gulf Seafood Institute joined a Gulf seafood and agriculture panel in New Orleans to inform US Customs and Border Patrol, Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, of pressing seafood issues like H2-B in the Gulf of Mexico. (L_R) Harlon Pearce, Jim Gossen, Jennifer Jenkins, Commissioner Kerlikowske, Chris Nelson and Frank Randol. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

As international cargo ships and barges eleven floors below worked their way up the Mississippi River, Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske listened recently as members of the Gulf seafood and business communities expressed concerns over H2B visa issues, international seafood safety and testing, international food coding, unregulated international fisheries, as well as third party trans shipping and traceability.

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Before the meeting at the Westin, Commissioner Kerlikowske (top right) joined roundtable participants to enjoy broiled oysters at Dragos. (L-R bottom) Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s, Louisiana AgCommission Michael Strain and Jim Gossen.of Sysco (rear), Rob Nelson, CEO Elmers Candy and Michael Hensgens of the CPA. Photo: Ed Lallo

Nominated by President Obama, Commissioner Kerlikowske oversees the 60,000-employee U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. With a budget of $12.4 billion, the agency’s mission is protecting national security objectives while promoting economic prosperity and security. It is the largest federal law enforcement agency and second largest revenue-collecting source in the federal government.

“We are here to listen to your concerns and want to help and provide any service that we can for the seafood industry,” the Customs and Boarder Protection Commissioner told the group gathered at the Riverfront Westin. “We recognize the importance of partnerships and we recognize the importance of open communication and dialog.”

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Led by the Crawfish Processors Alliance, a panel of seafood executives representing a variety of seafood interests in the five Gulf States joined two Gulf state Agricultural Commissioners, as well as other businessmen. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Led by the Louisiana Crawfish Processors Alliance (CPA), a panel of seafood executives representing a variety of seafood interests in the five Gulf States joined two Gulf state Agricultural Commissioners, as well as other businessmen.

Participants joining Commissioner Kerlikowske and his staff for the roundtable were; Michael Hensgens, Crawfish Processors Allialiance Legislative Chairman; Commissioner Mike Strain, DVM of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry; Commissioner Cindy-Hyde Smith of Mississippi’s Department of Agriculture; Jim Gossen, Chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood; Chris Nelson, Vice-President of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries; Harlon Pierce, President of the Gulf Seafood Insitute and owner of Harlon’s LA Seafood; Patrick Schmidt, Advisor to Commissioner; Jennifer Jenkins, General Manager Crystal Sea Oysters in Mississippi, Frank Randol, GSI Crawfish, Crawfish Processors Alliance Legislative Vice Chairman and owner of Randol’s Restaurant and Seafood Processing;Bill Pizzolato, Principal at Tony’s Seafood; and Rob Nelson, CEO of Louisiana’s Elmers Candy.

Beyond Donald Trump

“All the news media wants to talk about is Donald Trump and border security, what the media doesn’t spend enough time on is the huge economic mission of our agency,” he said in his remarks to the roundtable. “More than 70,000 containers every day are coming in by rail and sea. We have to make sure that they are not going to harm the country, but also that they don’t contain counterfeit merchandise or cause a serious issue.   We have a big economic footprint, enforcing the laws for more than 50 different federal agencies, many of which have the ability to hold up commerce and trade. “

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According to Kerlikowske, U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs a strong and communicative partnership with the private sector. He is committed to working closely with the seafood industry. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Kerlikowske, who brought an entourage of his department leaders, told the panel that antidumping, countervailing duties and import safety issues are real priorities for his agency. “It is essential that we work hard to maintain a level playing field so that industry can compete. Maintaining that level playing field could not be accomplished without the relationships we have established with industry,” he said.

According to him, U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs a strong and communicative partnership with the private sector. He is committed to working closely with the seafood industry on antidumping orders, and would like to see the law changed so all duties seized by the agency are redistributed back to the industry first before interest is paid; in 2014 more than $20 million was redistributed back to seafood.

H2B

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Crawfish and seafood processor Frank Randol of Lafayette, LA, told the commissioner that H2B visa issues continue to negatively impact the seafood industry. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Crawfish and seafood processor Frank Randol of Lafayette, LA, told the commissioner that H2B visa issues continue to negatively impact the seafood industry. Issues affecting the usefulness of the program include Homeland Security’s cap on returning workers and the Department of Labor’s new program and wage rules.

“Seafood’s use of the H2B program is a critical national small business issue,” said Randol, a founding member of the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI). “In Louisiana alone the impact goes beyond seafood to impact companies like Elmer’s Candy, as well as  businesses involved in sugar, forestry and hospitality.  A renewal of the returning worker exemption in fiscal year 2016 is desperately needed. ”

The Lafayette seafood processor told the commissioner “Returning Guest Workers” are dependable and experienced in processing seafood. This allows for processors to plan the quantity of sales during the yearly season.

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Louisiana Department of Agriculture Commissioner Michael Strain also urged Kerlikowske to inform the Department of Homeland Security regarding the desperate need for immediate action on the H2B front. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Louisiana Department of Agriculture Commissioner Michael Strain also urged Kerlikowske to inform the Department of Homeland Security regarding the desperate need for immediate action on the H2B front. He also stated that it is important that imported products Americans eat are safe.

“When you look at domestic seafood you know that there is a high, high demand for safety, but there are issues on the imported front. Issues on seafood traceability and imported seafood testing,” said Strain, whose department overseas state domestic seafood testing. “We know that on imports, less than one pound in million, even maybe a billion, is tested.”

Gulf Presentations

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Alabama GSI Board Member Chris Nelson, Vice-President of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries, explained the impacts that imported shrimp has on the Gulf shrimping community who are facing some of the lowest dockside prices since the BP oil spill five years ago. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

After formal presentations, Commissioner Kerlikowske and his staff listened as members of various Gulf industries, involved in seafood or H2B, presented issues important to the survival of their business. Alabama GSI Board Member Chris Nelson, Vice-President of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries, explained the impacts that imported shrimp has on the Gulf shrimping community who are facing some of the lowest dockside prices since the BP oil spill five years ago.

Sysco Louisiana Seafood Chairman Jim Gossen explained how imported seafood is necessary to fill gaps in supply resulting from uncertainties in domestic production. He further explained the challenges his company faces in forecasting domestic supply due to unpredictable U.S. regulations.

Gossen, whose business requires both domestic and imported product to supply his customers, said he often finds his operation competing with “Informal Entry Products” and gave the example of fresh crab meat he imports from Mexico.

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Having to compete with more than 1.5 million pounds of illegal red-snapper caught in Texas waters – – processed in Mexico – – then sold and shipped into the U.S. market, was a concern that GSI’s President Harlon Pearce as Jim Gossen of Sysco listened. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

Having to compete with more than 1.5 million pounds of illegal red-snapper caught in Texas waters – – processed in Mexico – – then sold and shipped into the U.S. market, was a concern that GSI’s President Harlon Pearce, owner of Harlon’s LA Fish, brought to the commissioner’s attention.

Pearce, who recently established a number of export markets for his seafood products, has also experienced costly differences between U.S. regulations and regulations of foreign countries. “Many countries require different documents or additional testing. We need to get the U.S. documents aligned to better compete globally,” Pearce explained to the Commissioner.

Right People in the Room

After the meeting, Pearce told Gulf Seafood News, “When you get the right people in the room together you have a chance of making a difference. We clearly had some of the right people in the room today to listen to the problems of Gulf seafood and other businesses, especially with labor and H2B visas. It was a great meeting and we hope to see results from it.”

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“Labor is a big concern for the seafood industry,” said Jennifer Jenkins, General Manager at Mississippi’s Crystal Seas Seafood, Mississippi’s largest oyster processor. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

“From Texas to Florida, it is clear that labor is a big concern for the seafood industry,” said Jennifer Jenkins, General Manager at Mississippi’s Crystal Seas Seafood, Mississippi’s largest oyster processor and a GSI Board Member. “It is important the Commissioner understand that before the Department of Labor took over the program it was useable. But, since the Department of Labor’s involvement, it has become almost impossible to get the workers to process our seafood. I would like to streamline the process and make it easier.”

Chris Nelson was glad to see so much participation at the meeting on the part of Customs and Border Protection and the area staff. “I think the panel offered some great insight to the Commissioner, and I feel we have his commitment to help make things better.”

Louisiana’s Agriculture Commissioner Michael Strain agreed. “We had a very good discussion about H2-B. We heard directly from the seafood processors, restaurants, food distribution companies, and candy manufactures.   When you have the Commissioner listening to how H2B labor issues are all tied together, you understand that without the migrant labor, America loses jobs, and companies ship production overseas. The biggest inhibitor in business is uncertainty. You can’t plan ahead if you don’t know if you are going to get your labor.”

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The Louisiana Crawfish Processors Alliance’s President Adam Johnson was impressed with the quality of the discussion. “The immediate issue still remains H2B, and the ability to make sure we get a consistent labor force so we can plan more than one year at a time,” he said. Photo: Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink

The Louisiana Crawfish Processors Alliance’s President Adam Johnson was impressed with the quality of the discussion. “The two big issues for us are to continue working on tariff collection and bond interest, as well as making sure these tariffs continue to be enforced,” he said. “But the immediate issue still remains H2B, and the ability to make sure we get a consistent labor force so we can plan more than one year at a time. With that commitment I can put more money in my business and hire more local people along with the H-2B labor.”

Walking toward the Westin elevators, Gossen, one of GSI’s Texas board members, thanked the Commissioner for taking time to come to the Gulf. “I told him that I know some of the issues were out of his hands. He told me that is why these meeting are important, because there are issues they can help solve and that he and his staff were here to make that happen.”

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About the Author

About the Author: Ed Lallo is the former editor of Gulf Seafood News and CEO of Newsroom Ink, an online brand journalism agency. .

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  1. Juan Urich says:

    I am a prospective forgeing investor in Closed system shrimps aquaculture in the US. (Florida). All the market imperfections related to health and safety standar violations, Asian wholesalers and traders unconventional and illegal trade practice are a mayor risk factor for safety health, economic loss and any long term initiative for a sustainable bussines practice.
    I see with great satisfaction that homeland security has jumped in the band wagon for the prosperity of the american people as well as for its nationals and serious forgeing investors
    Best Regards and keep up the efforts
    Juan F Urich

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