by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
As the pages of the calendar turn to a new year, members of the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) will dust off overcoats and galoshes for their annual “Walk on the Hill” during January’s Washington Mardi Gras week. The purpose of the annual pilgrimage is to educate legislators on the state of Gulf fishing and seafood.
“This is a watershed year for the Gulf Seafood Institute,” said Margaret Henderson, the organization’s Executive Director. “We are coming off two successful years working with our Gulf Congressional Delegation to have important legislation affecting Gulf seafood added to the Omnibus Appropriations Act. In 2015, NOAA obligated over $2 million in funding for electronic monitoring for the Gulf’s charter-for-hire fleet which was included by Alabama’s Senator Richard Shelby. In the FY 2016 Appropriations, Congress stalled implementation of egregious H-2B rules and reinstated the returning guest work exemption, as well as passed $10 million for better data collection for Gulf reef fish – two items GSI has long been hard at work on.”
Gulf Coast Congressional offices will once again be filled with members of the Gulf seafood industry spreading the message of the economic and environmental importance of their community to the region and to American consumers broadly.
Nearly 30 Meetings
”All told, we’ll be conducting nearly 30 meetings with policymakers representing states and districts from across the entire Gulf Coast,” explained Henderson about the annual event. “Also, this year we will be visiting several Representatives outside of the Gulf like Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Alaska’s Senator Dan Sullivan who are in key positions to influence seafood legislation relating to the H-2B visa program and the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act.”
“Our days are definitely filled with a lot of walking and talking,” said Harlon Pearce, President of GSI and owner of Harlons LA Fish in New Orleans, the organization that represents both recreational and commercial fisheries in the Gulf. “There is important legislation still coming down the pike and it’s vital that the views of Gulf fishermen are expressed and understood by those writing and administering this legislation.”
According to Pearce, red snapper, fisheries data collection and H-2B visas are again at the top of GSI’s priority list. In addition to focusing on GSI’s organizational priorities, members are encouraged to speak on issues impacting their businesses specifically when meeting with their own Members of Congress.
“GSI has been an influential leader in working to secure legislation benefiting the Gulf Coast’s seafood industry,” said GSI Founding Member Frank Randol, a seafood processor in Lafayette, LA and owner of Randol’s Restaurant. “We are extremely thankful for the leadership the organization has shown in working to secure an equitable solution to the H-2B crisis the seafood industry has faced this past year. It has worked closely with both the Louisiana delegation’s leadership, especially Senator Bill Cassidy, Congressman Charles Boustany and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, as well as the Congressional members of other Gulf States and some members outside our region. But there is still a lot of work yet to be done.”
GSI helped include language in the 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act to rectify problems facing small businesses who use the H-2B visa guest worker program. For example, language exempting returning workers from the annual cap of 66,000 total visas, as well as language allowing the use of private wage surveys to better determine wages for temporary, seasonal workers was included in the final Act.
“The oyster industry has become even more volatile than usually and I feel it is important to educate our Senators and Representatives about the trials we are facing,” said Jennifer Jenkins, General Manger of Crystal Seas Seafood in Pass Christian, MS and a GSI Mississippi Board Member. “The H2B guest visa program is key to keeping our business alive. We need this program to become a program companies can actually use. Rules have become overly complicated and fee structures associated with the program are overly expensive.”
GSI A Gulf Leader
GSI has gained a reputation in D.C. as being the leader in uniting the various Gulf groups and giving them a stronger voice than they have ever had before.
“Congress has long been interested in the Gulf, but the spate of bills proposed in the last few years on fisheries, in particular red snapper management, clearly shows the level of concern our federal legislators have concerning the Gulf,” said GSI Florida board member Bob Gill. “It highlights the need for GSI to maintain a close relationship with Congress and be a source of facts and proactive solutions.”
This is the perfect time for Gulf Seafood Institute members to be on the Hill, according to Raz Hallili, the general manager of Prestige Oysters and a GSI Texas Board Member. “With Congress reconvening in the New Year, we want our issues and faces recognized as synonymous with Gulf seafood. Our members are continuously returning to Washington during the course of a year, testifying before various House and Senate committees.”
Members of the influential organization are no strangers to Capitol Hill, with some members walking with other seafood organizations for more than 20-years.
“We are all well known in a majority of the offices we visit,” said Jim Gossen, Texas GSI Board Member and Chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood. “We will have scheduled meetings with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Fish and Wildlife and Foundation.”
With a constant buzz of voices bouncing off marble halls, members of the organization will visit Congressional office after office, continuously pressing the flesh and passing paper after paper.
“There are a lot of important issues that will be affecting Gulf seafood in the upcoming year, especially at the national and Gulf Council levels,” said Henderson about her organization’s commitment to remaining the trusted voice for Gulf seafood. “Our members are among the most knowledgeable and trusted spokespeople for the industry, and we will always be available assist Congressional members in any way possible.”