by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Even before members of the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) took their first steps toward Capitol Hill, they realized this year’s “Walk on the Hill” would be extremely important for the survival of commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Hours before GSI members were scheduled to leave their D.C. headquarters at the Hotel George, GSI received word that two amendments would be offered to the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act being heard at the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that would negatively impact the harvesting of commercial seafood in the Gulf of Mexico. One of these amendments would have permanently extended state waters in the Gulf of Mexico to nine miles,effectively rescinding the Magnuson Stevens Act for all commercial, charter-for-hire and recreational fishing out to 9 miles – an outcome that would imperil consumers’ access to Gulf fisheries.
“The surprise that state boundary limits for all fisheries going to nine miles introduced into the Sportsman’s package has dire consequences for a lot of seafood sectors that haven’t been vetted,” said GSI Florida Board Member David Krebs, president of Ariel Seafood. “I think we are all surprised these amendments have been attached to an Environment and Public Works bill instead of through the Commerce Committee. Hopefully GSI will be able to circumvent the damage before it is done.”
With a telephone glued to his ear, GSI President Harlon Pearce, owner of Harlon’s LA Fish in New Orleans, made call after call to other organizations to raise awareness of the proposed amendments. The organization made last minute changes to its legislative agenda as it prepared to meet with the Gulf Congressional Delegation, as well as Maryland’s Senator Barbara Mikulski and Alaska’s Senator Dan Sullivan.
“We often meet with legislators outside of the Gulf,” said Pearce. “It was a stroke of luck that we were in the right place at the right time to bring this important information on the proposed amendments to their attention. We also thanked them for all they have done for our industry in the past. It is important to meet with legislators outside of the Gulf to educate them that what affects our fisheries eventually affects their constituents.. We want to keep Gulf fish available for all Americans.”
Walk Builds Camaraderie
The annual Hill walk builds camaraderie among the various fishing industries in the Gulf, and serves as the kickoff of a yearlong process of educating Congress on issues affecting Gulf seafood interests.
This is the first year Dr. Nancy Thompson, Ph.D., Visiting Director of the Keys Marine Laboratory and Courtesy Research Professor at the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, walked the marble halls of Congress with GSI. “This has been both educational and fun,” she said standing in the rotunda of the Cannon Building waiting for her next meeting with Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana. “I learned how important these walks are to giving a voice to hundreds of small fishing businesses located along the Gulf, as well as issues like H-2B visas and fishery data collection which is dear to my heart. I can really appreciate that fishing is not something that is easy to do.”
According to Thompson, who specializes in fishery data collection, she was impressed with how receptive the Senators, Representatives and their staff were to GSI and its agenda. “The majority of our meetings have been conducted in a very positive framework,” she told Gulf Seafood News. “It is very clear we are dealing with well informed staff members engaged in the issues important to GSI.”
In addition to the Sportsman’s bill amendments, GSI’s legislative agenda centered around supporting the H-2B visa program, preserving federal management of the Gulf red snapper fishery, as well as support of fisheries data collection efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We are here to thank members of Congress for including critical H-2B visa language in the final 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act,” said Margaret Henderson, GSI’s Executive Director.
“Seafood processors along the Gulf coast rely on temporary, seasonal foreign workers admitted to the U.S. under the H-2B Visa program to fill the most labor-intensive positions in the industry. The work done by these laborers is necessary to support thousands of supply chain jobs held by U.S. workers,” she explained.
According to Henderson, the final FY 16 H-2B language allowed the use of Private Wage Surveys to determine fair wages for workers; exempted returning workers who have been employed by the program in the past three years from the annual cap of 66,000; allowed seafood companies to stagger the entries of their visa workers; and prohibited the Department of Labor from implementing a requirement that employers “guarantee” their workers three quarters of their wages.
“We also are asking Congress to cosponsor stand-alone legislation designed to help seasonal employers better navigate the H-2B visa program,,” she said walking the tunnel underneath the Senate office buildings. “ We want to encourage our senators to co-sponsor S. 2225, the Save our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act and our Representatives to co-sponsor H.R. 3918, the Strengthen Employment and Seasonal Opportunities Now (SEASON) Act.”
“I love this time in D.C, the city and the energy around it, “ said Raz Halili, GSI Board Member from Texas and manager of Prestige Oysters walking past the Capitol Building in freezing temperatures. “Last year we managed to get some very important H-2B legislation passed, now we must work to move that forward in a very timely manner. I am very optimistic this will happen. I was particularly impressed with the reception we got in the offices of both Texas Senators. I think they are finally grasping the concept that the small ‘mom and pop’ shops will be out of business if we can’t bring these workers in.”
According to Krebs, additional real-time fishery data is needed to better understand the status of all fisheries Gulf-wide, including red snapper, and to provide fishery managers with adequate information to make the best decisions for the resource and all user groups.
“Senator Shelby of Alabama and Representative David Jolly of Florida worked hard to provide funding for Gulf reef fish data collection in this year’s Omnibus,” he said. “We want to make sure this data is collected in a responsible fashion and available for both state and federal agencies.”
GSI is encouraging members to co-sponsor H.R. 3521, the Gulf Snapper Data Improvement Act, which would authorize $10 million annually for third party data collection of fish populations.
GSI, the leading voice for Gulf seafood, also agrees that Congress must preserve federal management of the commercial and federal charter-for-hire red snapper communities in order to protect access to and long-term availability of Gulf red snapper for all Americans.
Unified Voice of Gulf Seafood
“GSI is the unified voice of seafood and fishing in the Gulf,” said Michael Kelly, Director of Business Development or GSI member CLS America. “Because of our diverse backgrounds and the variety of industries that are part of GSI, we bring a strong message to legislators and staff. And we get results. The electronic logbook project is one example, the scaling back of the Sportsman’s Bill is another.”
Restaurants, retailers, processors and consumers need the certainty that federal management of the commercial red snapper fishery provides to ensure long-term access to this iconic fish. Federal management of both the commercial and charter sectors must be preserved so all Americans can continue to enjoy access to red snapper.
“We have concerns with legislation granting the five Gulf states exclusive management authority over the entire red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico,” Henderson explained. “This may threaten availability of red snapper for commercial harvesters, processors, retailers, restaurants and the millions of customers who depend on them. Congress needs to preserve the transparent, stakeholder-driven, regionally-based Council management process as authorized by the Magnuson Stevens Act.”
Riding the Capitol underground from the Senate to the House side of the Hill, Stan Harris, GSI Louisiana Board Member and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, said he was encouraged with the meetings. “It is always a positive to me when we meet with staffers that are highly engaged and informed on the issues. That is the person the elected official relies upon to give them guidance. There is no way that any member of Congress can keep up with every issue. Having an engaged staff that is well informed and willing to hear a different view than their boss allows us to share valuable information.
Harris was particularly impressed with Alaska Senator Daniel Sullivan’s office. “Senator Sullivan is from a state where fisheries dominate the discussion. Watching TV, it’s hard not to find a reality show about an Alaska fishery. People are amazed at this vast land to the north of us, and if you haven’t been there you can’t understand the scope of how important fishing is to the state. It is important that someone like Sen. Sullivan is on a fishery resource committee because we have a breath of policy that extends across the United States. Preserving Magnuson Stevens is a national goal.
“The GSI members I joined this week in Washington, DC understand the importance of building relationships with lawmakers and staff. The voice of the entire Gulf seafood supply chain is a powerful one and our message on federal policies is being heard,” said Chip Kunde, Vice President of Government Relations for GSI member Sysco.
As the week wrapped up and GSI members held their final Congressional meetings, word was spreading that the Sportsman’s package, which did end up including drastically pared down red snapper language, may be stalled completely which would be a favorable outcome for the Gulf seafood supply chain. It is clear that GSI had good timing and was effective in getting the word out about the concerns with this language. “This is a big relief,” said Pearce. “We will continue to make sure the voices of Gulf fishermen are heard loud and clear on the Hill.”