by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
At six foot three inches the senior Senator from Alabama, Richard Craig Shelby, casts a long shadow on the Halls of Congress, welding influence felt in banking, energy, commerce, defense, science and fisheries – especially Gulf of Mexico fisheries.
“I like fresh seafood,” said the Senator relaxing in his leather chair situated at the head of his Capitol Hill office conference table. “I especially like Gulf Scamp (a highly prized game and commercial fish in the grouper family). I could live on scamp, my wife and I never throw a piece of that away.”
The Alabama Senator has a single purpose when it comes to the Gulf of Mexico. “I want to make sure the Gulf remains healthy, and that the fish are abundant as they can be, and that all three fishing sectors; commercial, charter-for-hire and recreational, as well as all Americans, continue to benefit from them,” he said.
Born in Birmingham on the sixth of May in 1932, Shelby received a law degree from the Birmingham School of Law. First elected to the Senate in 1986 after winning a tight race as a Democrat, he was among a group of conservative Democrats. In 1994, midway through his second term, he switched allegiance to the Republican Party.
Currently he chairs the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, and the Senate Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, and sits on the Committee on Rules and Administration.
Constant Gulf Seafood Supporter
During his term on Capitol Hill, Shelby has been a constant supporter of Alabama and Gulf Seafood, as well as the thousands of people working hard to deliver it to the American people everyday.
“I like to fish, it’s is a great sport,” he told Gulf Seafood News in an exclusive interview. “I enjoy the outdoors.”
In his soft Southern drawl, the Senator said he wants the Gulf seafood industry to flourish because everyone benefits from seafood. “It’s nutritious and provides jobs for thousands upon thousands along the Gulf coast, as well as across the country,” he said. “Be it commercial, charter-for-hire or recreational, I am interested in maintaining abundant, healthy seafood in the Gulf of Mexico that is available to all.”
Back in 2010, after crude oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well causing the largest offshore oil spills in United States history, the Alabama Senator was a leader in the effort to have those responsible for the Gulf oil disaster pays the piper.
The Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) dedicates 80 percent of all Clean Water Act penalties paid by those responsible for the disaster to Gulf Coast restoration. It established the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust to be available for programs, projects, and activities that restore and protect the environment and economy of the Gulf Coast region. The Senator was instrumental in having funding for Gulf fishery data collection included in the legislation.
“Collecting accurate data and improving our understanding of the Gulf is crucial,” Shelby said. “That is why I was proud to get the RESTORE Act passed in 2012, to ensure sustained monitoring and research activities in the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 oil spill. I will continue to fight for better data in the Gulf of Mexico to allow the public greater access to the Gulf’s abundant resources.”
Congress must ensure that fishermen of all types have access to harvest Gulf seafood, according to the Senator. He feels the Gulf of Mexico is a robust ecosystem with abundant natural resources, and it is the duty of Congress to not only protect these resources, but also ensure that the public has access to benefit from them.
Big Wins for Gulf Seafood
For two consecutive years the senior statesman has been instrumental in assuring more than $12 million in funding for programs important to accurate data collection of reef fish, especially Gulf red snapper. He has also worked closely with the Gulf Seafood Institute.
In late 2014 Senator Shelby authored language in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Act to establish a cost-shared electronic reporting program for the federally licensed charter-for-hire industry in the Gulf.
With passage of the 2015 Omnibus, Congress took a major step forward by providing over $2 million in funding to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for a voluntary electronic data collection program for the charter-for-hire fishing community in the Gulf of Mexico.
Recently the Senator visited with charter-for-hire fisherman on the docks at Orange Beach where almost 100 percent of the charter for hire fleet has already had the new system installed.
“I heard directly from many charter captains in Orange Beach during my recent visit. There is a general feeling of excitement and cautious optimism,” said the Senator about the pilot program. “However, the fight for better data is long from being over. We need charter captains, as well as private anglers, to keep pushing for more accurate data.”
Lanham, MD-based satellite data communications firm CLS America has partnered with the Gulf Seafood Institute to spearhead the ambitious volunteer program that has a goal of installing more than 275 electronic logbook/vessel-monitoring systems on charter vessels home-ported in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
“Accurate data is essential to improve the management of our Gulf fisheries and allow businesses that rely on fishing, such as the Gulf charter fleet, to be successful,” the Alabama native who has spent his entire life in the state explained. “Funding real-time data collection efforts for Gulf charter boats is part of a broader goal I have to get timelier and accurate fisheries data.”
As Chair of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, Shelby has led the recent effort to have $10 million included in the Fiscal Year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act for Gulf of Mexico fisheries data collection.
The Senator, who also authored several red snapper provisions in the legislation, said the bill provides up to $5 million for NOAA’s Sea Grant program to support external research and development through its network of academic institutions for a red snapper tagging study in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, it provides $5 million for independent, non-NOAA stock assessments for Gulf reef fish, including red snapper.
The southern Senator, who has eaten red snapper all his life, said the snapper fishery is a key economic driver on Alabama’s Gulf Coast – and all of the Gulf Coast. It is also integral to the region’s way of life. A viable fishing industry is critical to the Gulf, and the federal government’s failure to properly oversee red snapper stocks has a damaging impact on fishermen and businesses alike.
Funding for Fishery Data
“Funding to improve fisheries data in the Gulf of Mexico is meant to improve the status quo. For too long the federal government has refused to count fish where fish live. All of this funding is for research outside of NOAA, to better understand how many reef fish inhabit areas with structure in the Gulf, such as around reefs and oil rigs. It will also provide an opportunity for independent study and surveys of red snapper in the Gulf to improve fisheries management and help us better understand the true status of red snapper,” he explained.
He believes these activities will confirm red snapper are alive and well in the Gulf of Mexico, and are in greater abundance than NOAA has estimated year after year. “I was happy to secure this substantial funding for red snapper research in the Gulf and urge all interested stakeholders to inform NOAA that this money needs to get out the door quickly to have the quickest impact.”
Shelby continues to have numerous discussions with NOAA on the state of our Gulf reef fish stocks. Asking the tough questions: Are they depleted to where they are dangerously low, or are snapper and grouper getting this big (holding his hands three feet apart)? Are they being counted correctly, and in the right spots? “These are all questions that need to be answered so we can find the truth in the status of reef fish stocks in the Gulf, especially for red snapper,” he said.
Congressionally appropriated money must be spent wisely and for the intended purpose in his opinion. NOAA must be responsible for laying out a new strategy and model to go forward. He thinks recently passed legislation is a step in the right direction, and an opportunity not to be wasted.
The “Heart of Dixie” Senator doesn’t like picking winner and losers. He wants everyone to benefit from his legislation.
During the past three years the Senator and his staff have worked closely with the Gulf Seafood Institute. “GSI should remain very involved because what we do has a direct affect on your industry and the livelihood of Gulf fisherman and millions of Americans that enjoy eating their harvest. Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “I’ve worked with you, and you’ve got my attention.”
According to the Alabama Senator, Alabama and Gulf commercial fishermen are out there every day of their life harvesting so Americans from Portland to Plymouth can enjoy Gulf Seafood. “Many of our Alabama and Gulf fishermen span generation after generation,” he said. “We have to have a balance where they are able to continue to thrive, as well as the charter-for hire sector and recreational sectors.”
After meeting with Senator Shelby, he was ready to head back to his home state of Alabama to enjoy the Gulf’s bounty. “I had some grouper recently and it was so good, I mean really good. The closer you are to the Gulf the fresher the fish.”
He says he will continue his support for the commercial industry so “I can have that Scamp on Thursday night. Our Gulf fish are so good for everyone.”