FISH FACTOR: Efforts at seafood industry relief continue in Congress
Giving COVID relief funds to the seafood industry and stepping on the gas for offshore fish farming are two big takeaways from the executive orders and congressional packages coming out of the nation’s capital.
Recent news that Alaska would receive $50 million from the $300 million fisheries relief funds in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was well received by industry stakeholders and it’s likely to be followed by more.
A May 15 hearing titled “COVID 19 impacts to American Fisheries and the Seafood Supply Chain” was scheduled by the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee to focus on the lack of assistance for harvesters and processors.
A bipartisan group of 49 House members also has pushed for at least $2 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase domestically caught and processed seafood and to distribute it through food assistance programs, as the agency does for agricultural products.
Likewise, a group of 25 Senators is trying to get an additional $3 billion for the seafood industry from the next relief package. A new bill called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act would add another $3 trillion to overall relief assistance.
While it builds on the CARES Act, critics claim it does little for the seafood industry except to give NOAA another $100 million to aid fishery participants.
Undercurrent News reported that President Trump called the HEROES bill “dead on arrival” saying it contains too many unrelated priorities, such as expanding access to mail-in ballots.
Somewhat lost in the particulars about relief payouts is the federal government’s renewed push and strict guidelines for expanding U.S. aquaculture.
The May 7 executive order by Trump that cut loose the first batch of fishing funds also calls for an update to the 2017 National Aquaculture Development Plan in order to “strengthen domestic aquaculture production and improve the efficiency and predictability of permitting.”
It states that “more than 85 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported” and outlines rigorous ways and timelines to turn that around.
It also designates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the lead agency for aquaculture projects from three to 200 miles offshore.
Among other things, the order calls for a “guidance document” within eight months that describes regulatory requirements for aquaculture operations and identifies grant programs.
It also removes barriers to permitting and calls for a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “nationwide permit authorizing finfish aquaculture activities” within 90 days.
Within one year, federal agencies, fishery management councils and states are required to identify at least two “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” suitable for commercial operations. And within two years of identifying those areas, agencies must complete an environmental impact statement, and come up with two additional opportunities to be developed in the following four years.
Finally, Trump’s order calls for the establishment of a new Seafood Trade Task Force that will, within 30 days, create a new agency to promote American seafood internationally, resolve technical barriers to U.S. seafood exports, and support fair market access for US products.
(Suggestion: start with the seafood trade imbalance with Russia. Russia has not purchased a single pound of U.S. seafood since 2014, yet the value of Russian imports to the U.S. has grown 70 percent since 2014. The amount has tripled to nearly $670 million since 2016.)
Tim Bristol, director of SalmonState, agreed with the need to maximize the value of our country’s seafood industry, but called Trump’s order “the wrong approach.”
“It ignores the fact that America already has healthy wild fisheries generating billions of dollars in revenue and providing hundreds of thousands of jobs. We should be investing our resources in what we already have and better maximizing the value of our fisheries to American communities rather than displacing hard-working fishing families with open-water feedlots and fooling ourselves into believing that farmed fish will solve all of our problems,” he said in a statement.
Fish farming is banned in Alaska although growing shellfish and seaweeds is permitted. At a U.S. Department of Commerce hearing in 2018, Sam Rabung, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries division, said: “I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to fight pretty hard to maintain the state’s opt-out option and maintain the ability to prohibit finfish farming off of Alaska.”
Copper River salmon slump
It was slow going for the May 15 fishery at Copper River, which marks the official start of Alaska’s salmon season. Just more than 3,000 fish crossed the docks (1,491 sockeyes; 1,646 Chinook) by 337 deliveries in a 12 hour opener.
Prices tanked for the famous “first fish” that usually fetch the highest prices of the year. Fishermen reported a base of $3 per pound for sockeye salmon and $6 per pound or slightly more for kings, for starters. That compares to record prices in 2019 of $10 for sockeyes and $14 for kings, respectively.
Instead of the usual diners at high-end restaurants getting the first tastes, front line workers at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital were the first to be treated to the prized fish the day after the fishery.
A partnership of Seattle chef Tom Douglas, Alaska Airlines, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and the Copper River Marketing Association provided 200 salmon meals to the nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals, reported SeafoodNews.com.
On May 17, the same group organized a Grilling for Goodwill event in Ballard, featuring a special $45 Copper River salmon meal for pick up with 100 percent of the proceeds donated to Food Lifeline.
Letter to the fleets
As thousands of boats head to the salmon grounds, everyone knows it’s not business as usual. United Fishermen of Alaska has penned a letter to the fleets with a concise list of the new rules in place during the COVID plague.
Above all, you must know what is required of you and have a plan to implement the protocols, wrote UFA president Matt Alward of Homer, adding: “As a vessel operator, you are responsible for your crew’s compliance with the mandate.”
“We also need to understand if there’s any local rules in the communities that we’re fishing in, and on top of that, if some of the boat yards or harbors or even the supply stores and whatnot have their own rules that we should follow,” Alward said in a phone interview. “If your crew’s coming from out of state, it’s important to have already figured out how and where you’re going to quarantine and how you’re going to get food and supplies without breaking quarantine. The quarantine part for those coming from out of state I think is by far the most important thing to really protect our communities and ourselves from bringing the virus in.”
What about those who refuse to wear masks? Alward said contracts with his crew require that they follow all mandates and not doing so is grounds for termination.
“They don’t have troopers running around making sure everyone’s following this. It’s really upon ourselves to self-regulate,” he said. “If someone sees crew members from another boat running around town without masks and violating the rules, it’s going to get the whole industry in trouble with the community. Fishing is a privilege, not a right, and we have to respect the community we fish in. The hope is everyone will comply.”
Find the UFA letter and get COVID fishing updates at www.ufafish.org.