U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “Fishery Failures: Improving the Disaster Declaration and Relief Process,” at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, September 25, 2019. This hearing will examine federal and stakeholder perspectives on the fishery disaster process and how those disasters impact local communities. The hearing will also examine recent and pending disaster declarations and how the process for both declaration and relief could be improved.
- Brigadier General (Retired) Joe Spraggins, Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources
- Ms. Rachel Baker, Deputy Commissioner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game
- Mr. Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
- Mr. Robert Spottswood, Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
- Mr. Ron Warren, Director of Fish Policy, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
*Witness list subject to change
Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
This hearing will take place in the Hart Senate Office Building 216. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman Roger Wicker
Today’s hearing will examine disasters impacting fishing communities and the fishery disaster declaration and relief process. Fishing is one of our nation’s most dangerous and demanding occupations – it also has a massive economic impact for our country and for the two states represented at the dais at this moment. This makes fishery disasters a challenge that can overwhelm the resources of even the most resilient fishermen.
This summer has been particularly difficult for fishermen in my home state of Mississippi. Record-breaking rains throughout the Mississippi River watershed have caused widespread flooding and devastation. Homes, businesses, and farmlands have been damaged, but the impacts are also offshore.
Flood waters caused further destruction to Mississippi’s natural resources when they entered the Gulf of Mexico. For example, they caused a Harmful Algal Bloom, which closed our beaches to swimmers during the height of the tourist season – our tourist industry is back and we welcome people to come back and see us in Mississippi – but this certainly created economic hardships for local businesses.
The freshwater from the Mississippi River has also devastated my state’s seafood industry. Oyster mortality on Mississippi harvest reefs ranged from 89% to 100% -- as a matter of fact, it is pretty much total mortality – and this is according to Mississippi’s Department of Marine Resources. Our state has found that shrimp landings are down by 50% and blue crab landings have suffered.
This hearing provides an opportunity to hear about the impacts a fishery disaster and what it can have on fishermen and their communities. Witnesses should discuss both the immediate job loss and the long-term impacts fishing disasters can have, such as a decrease in shore-side infrastructure and disruptions to distribution networks.
When fishermen face these hardships, they can petition NOAA to declare a disaster. I supported Governor Phil Bryant’s request for a fishery disaster declaration, and I have been working with NOAA to make sure Mississippi gets the relief it needs. Late yesterday, I received the good news from the Secretary of Commerce that he is officially declaring a Fishery Disaster for Mississippi. This is welcome news for Mississippi fishing communities now, but problems remain with the fisheries declaration process. The declaration process can be slow and cumbersome. It can often take over a year between a disaster request and NOAA’s declaration. And once this finally happens, financial relief for those who need it most can take even longer.
Today’s witnesses will have an opportunity to provide their perspective on the process for requesting a fishery disaster declaration. I also invite Mr. Oliver to provide an update on pending fishery disasters requests.
Our fishermen deserve more timely consideration and relief, for that reason I have introduced S. 2346, the Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act, or the Fishery FUNDD Act. This bill would streamline the fisheries disaster declaration process and hold the federal government accountable. It would mandate that certain deadlines to get relief funding for the areas and the people for whom it is intended be met.
I invite our witness to provide the committee with their views on how we could further improve NOAA’s fishery disaster declaration process. Additionally, I ask that witnesses speak about how we can ensure relief is provided to those most affected by these disasters.
I look forward to a robust discussion on these issues of vital importance to my state, to our country, to our colleagues, and to our nation as a whole. Fishing is crucial to America’s economy – don’t you agree Senator Cantwell? – and we owe it to our fishermen to support them in challenging times.
And I know turn to my friend and Ranking Member, Senator Cantwell.
Ranking Member Maria Cantwell
Senator Maria Cantwell
Opening Statement at Commerce Committee, Science, & Transportation Hearing titled “Fishery Failures: Improving the Disaster Declaration and Relief Process”
Witness: Brigadier General (Retired) Joe Spraggins, Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources;
Ms. Rachel Baker, Deputy Commissioner, Alaska Department of Fish and Game;
Mr. Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration;
Mr. Robert Spottswood, Chairman, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission;
Mr. Ron Warren, Director of Fish Policy, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
September 25, 2019
CANTWELL: Thank you Mr. Chairman, and I do agree. The right to fish and recreate is fundamental in the United States of America. And I’m sure that’s why many of my colleagues from states who understand the needs of recreational fisherman as well as an important issue internationally. I want to thank Ron Warren from the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife for being here today, I look forward to your testimony.
In Washington, fisheries are a cornerstone of a maritime economy that its related businesses and seafood processors, ship builders, gear manufacturers, support 60% of our maritime economy, which is about 146,000 jobs and $30 billion in economic activity.
Washington has experienced 17 fishery disasters since 1992, including crab, ground fish, and salmon. Unfortunately, the fisheries disaster process has become more burdensome, and has resulted in less funding and lengthy delays, putting an unnecessary burden on fishermen and fishing communities. In 2016, Washington suffered a large Coho salmon fishery disaster and this disaster impacted fisheries across the state, but particularly devastating in communities like Westport and Ilwaco, which is the fifth most dependent fishing community in the United States of America.
So the Coho disaster impacted tribes, commercial fisherman, charter and recreational fisherman, and impacted them all alike, but not all groups received adequate funding from NOAA. In a shift from previous policy, the administration determined that the charter fishermen should not be included in the economic determination. Thus, I believe Washington did not receive adequate funding for this disaster.
Charter fisherman, in my opinion, are just small business owners who navigate the waters and recreate and take our constituents out for wonderful activities. I am concerned that the charter fisherman have not been treated fairly, and that’s why I plan to work with you, Mr. Chairman, on bipartisan measures that help ensure that small business charter fisherman are mandated into the Disaster Relief Recovery Act so they do receive adequate funding.
We also need to develop a plan for mitigation strategies to lessen the impacts of these disasters. Fisheries are, as you just said Mr. Chairman, whether it’s shellfish in your state or other places, seeing an increase in severity and frequency due to warming waters and ocean acidification. And we see catastrophic ocean changes looming over our coastal communities, which very much are tied to their oceans as a livelihood.
So this morning, the UN report that is being published, or I guess being released, is about how climate change is impacting our oceans and having major impacts and major changes. So I’d like to enter this into the record if I could, Mr. Chairman, along with testimony from Butch Smith, the Ilwaco Charter Fisherman and their testimony this morning.
MR. WICKER: Without objection, but we’re going to have to kill a lot of trees to add that to the record.
CANTWELL: Well, we can digitally add it, Mr. Chairman.
MR. WICKER: Without objection, it will be done.
CANTWELL: The most important part of this report though is that 95% of our world surface has gained in acidification and it is absorbing result is that 20-30% of the total industry carbon emissions are being absorbed from 1980 until now.
So what does this mean for us? Well, as you mentioned, the shellfish industry, which is critically important to Washington state – we have seen real-time changes in ocean acidification stop the shellfish industry from being able to grow. Only because the University of Washington and resources here helped them do new scientific analysis on when to do seeding, we were able to stave off the disaster from having long-term impacts.
But, we know that this is not going to go away. The warming conditions is making the challenges to our shellfish industry and to our fisheries writ large very, very real. And so we need not only this help to commercial charter fisherman today for disaster relief, but we need a real plan to mitigate fishing disasters for the future, so I look forward to working with our colleagues on that.
I also would be remiss if I just didn’t mention the threat to Washington fisheries and fisheries worldwide from the Pebble Mine. With climate threats facing our fisheries, the administration is also rolling the dice on the second largest fishery in the world. The science is clear – the proposed pebble mine would destroy 94% of salmon spotting habitat, more than 3,500 acres of wetlands, and would require construction of significant infrastructure.
The mine is a direct threat to Bristol Bay salmon and thousands of jobs in the Pacific Northwest. So I hope the Army Corps of Engineers will not move forward on this process until science shows that they can move forward, which I don’t believe putting a mine in the middle of an estuary is any strategy that threatens this big of our salmon for the Pacific Northwest.
I hope that NOAA will take into consideration our fisherman and listen to the fishermen. So far they have not listened to the fishermen off the Pacific Northwest and had a formal hearing. I hope that they will do so at a point in time. Ocean warming is not going to slow down and NOAA needs a plan to help save fishing jobs. This is something we should be working with on a bipartisan basis and I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, on these important issues.
Witness Panel 1
Brigadier General (Retired) Joe SpragginsExecutive DirectorMississippi Department of Marine Resources
Ms. Rachel BakerDeputy CommissionerAlaska Department of Fish and Game
Mr. Chris OliverAssistant Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries ServiceNational Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
Mr. Robert SpottswoodChairmanFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Mr. Ron WarrenDirector of Fish PolicyWashington Department of Fish and Wildlife