Cantwell Pushes for Changes to Fisheries Disaster Process, Highlights Failures to Support Southwest Washington Fishermen

Small business charter fishermen were excluded from 2016 Coho fisheries disaster - estimated $100 million cost to Washington state

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing today on fisheries disasters, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the committee, highlighted the importance of responding to fisheries disasters and pushed for reforms to the process. 

“In Washington, fisheries are a cornerstone of our maritime economy. 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,” Cantwell said. “Washington has experienced 17 fishery disasters since 1992, including crab, groundfish, 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 particular, Cantwell discussed the 2016 Coho salmon fishery disaster, which impacted fisheries across the state. 

“The Coho disaster impacted Tribes, commercial fisherman, charter and recreational fisherman… but not all groups received adequate funding from NOAA,” Cantwell said. “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.” 

Ron Warren, the Director of Fish Policy at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, testified at the hearing about the impact of that inadequate funding for Washington state’s economy. 

“If you add the charters from the coast and charters from Puget Sound, as well as the troll fishery and other fisheries that had been included, you’d be looking at about $100 million to the state of Washington,” Warren said. 

The decision to exclude charter fishermen from disaster funding has impacted communities throughout the state, but it has been particularly devastating in fishing-dependent communities in Southwest Washington, like Westport and Ilwaco. 

Butch Smith, President of the Ilwaco Charter Association, said: “The charter fishing industry brings in millions of dollars for Washington’s coastal economy. Nobody knows why charter fishing income was dropped from the 2016 disaster declaration, but in Westport, WA, alone, five charter boats have already left Westport and the Washington coast. People have lost houses and businesses as a result of the disaster. I’m glad Senator Cantwell is working on this issue, and I will work with her to make sure our charter fishermen get the support they need when disasters are declared.” 

“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 fishermen are mandated into the Disaster Relief Recovery Act so they do receive adequate funding,” Cantwell said to Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) at the hearing. 

Throughout her time in the Senate, Cantwell has prioritized working on issues that impact the fishing industry. In 2015, she introduced bipartisan legislation to create a national ocean acidification monitoring strategy to prioritize investments in ocean acidification sensors to areas that need it most. In 2018, she worked with colleagues in the House and Senate to secure $200 million in federal funding to help communities with declared fisheries disasters. She has also fought to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed from harmful mining and opposed drilling off the coasts of Washington and Oregon. 

Video of Senator Cantwell’s opening statement at the hearing is available HERE, audio is HERE, and a transcript is HERE.

Video of Senator Cantwell’s Q&A with witnesses is available HERE, audio is HERE, and a transcript is HERE.