During Fisheries Hearing, Cantwell Questions Proposal to Cut Critical Salmon Recovery Fund

Cantwell also secures commitment that NOAA will not back away from successful West Coast groundfish observer program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) expressed concern over an amendment (#38) to the fiscal year 2013 continuing appropriations bill (H.R. 933) that would completely eliminate the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, which has supported restoration of 34,000 acres of salmon habitat in Washington state over the past decade.

Cantwell’s remarks occurred today during an Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard Subcommittee hearing on the developments and opportunities in U.S. fisheries management. The hearing was the Senate’s first step towards reviewing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the primary law governing the nation’s fisheries which is up for reauthorization this year. Cantwell was instrumental in strengthening the law during the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006.

During today’s hearing, Cantwell also asked about the impact of budget cuts on Washington state’s West Coast groundfish fishery’s observer program, as well as the ongoing U.S.-Canada Pacific Albacore Treaty negotiations, and what was being done to ensure U.S. fishermen have fair access to albacore tuna.

Cantwell is a champion of the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCSRF) and has fought over the last decade to ensure adequate funding is available for approximately 3,500 projects restoring 34,000 acres of salmon habitat in Washington state. Eliminating the fund would threaten the recovery of critical salmon habitat and the thousands of jobs supported by the restoration work each year.

“Mr. Fisher, I wanted to get your comments on the salmon issue because we are making some progress on salmon recovery,” Cantwell asked Randy Fisher, Executive Director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, during today’s hearing. “What would the impact be if we cut the Salmon Recovery Program?”

“We are making a lot of improvements in terms of salmon habitat,” Fisher responded. “So if we cut this out we are going to instantly probably have a problem in terms of some of the habitat work that’s being done by the states and through a lot of the local watershed districts where those funds are actually being spent. So we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater right now. I don’t think it would be timely at all.”

Watch a video of Cantwell’s remarks at today’s hearing.

PCSRF was established by Congress in fiscal year 2000 to protect, restore and conserve Pacific salmon populations and their habitats. In the states of California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, roughly 20 percent of salmon habitat supports about half of the region’s salmon abundance. Since its inception, PCSRF has supported 10,700 projects restoring 920,000 acres of salmon and steelhead habitat and opening 7,100 miles of
streams to fish passage.

Thousands of Washington state jobs depend on healthy, sustainable salmon populations. A 2010 Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife Study found that commercial fisheries, after processing and distributing their stocks, contributed $1.6 billion to the local economy.

During today’s hearing, Cantwell also asked Eric Schwaab, Assistant Secretary for Conservation and Management (Acting) at the U.S. Department of Commerce, about the impact of budget cuts on Washington state’s West Coast groundfish fishery’s catch share and observer program. The catch share program began in early 2011 and relies on federal funding to supplement critical observer coverage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had committed to help fishermen transition to the new catch share program by supporting observer costs, which can be staggering for businesses. Some Washington state fishermen are worried that promised program support from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) might fall victim to federal government cuts, or be deprioritized by the agency.

The two-year-old catch share program is crucial to limiting overfishing, improving safety and increasing economic stability for Washington state’s West Coast groundfish fishery, which supports 1,800 direct jobs and thousands of other jobs relying on the success of the fishery. The Seattle Times praised the catch share program in a December 2010 editorial, saying it would “reduce economic and environmental waste.”

In the first year alone, the fishery saw positive results from the switch to catch shares. Fishermen have seen their revenues for some species of fish, such as whiting, triple since the catch share program began. Bycatch has been reduced from 20 to 25 percent to only 1 percent.

“Are we, with all of the discussion that is happening with funding and cuts, are we going to have an adequate observer program to make sure that this fishery is run well? And what do we need to do to make sure that that happens?” Cantwell asked Schwaab during the hearing.

Cantwell continued: “I think every time the agency is before this committee though what I’m interested in is the commitment to the Groundfish Observer Program as a key component. So we never want to see NOAA backing away from it. So you are not backing away from it. You’re saying you are going to get it done. You are going to weather the storm whatever way you can?”

“We are doing the best we can to help the fishermen undergo this transition and supporting that to the extent that is necessary and that we can financially,” Schwaab responded. “Obviously budget challenges are very real for us.”

Cantwell: “But you’re not going to back away from groundfish observers?”

Schwaab: “Absolutely not.”

Tens of thousands of Washington jobs depend on the health of the ocean’s resources, but overfishing could threaten long-term sustainability and the health of the fishing economy. Fisheries along Washington’s coast produced roughly $8 billion in sales impacts and supported 67,000 jobs in 2011, according to the NMFS.

During the hearing today, Cantwell also asked Schwaab about the U.S.-Canada Pacific Albacore Treaty, which was suspended in 2012 by the U.S. Department of State over concerns that the treaty gave an unfair advantage to Canadian fishermen. Bilateral negotiations between both countries are currently underway to determine whether or not a renewed agreement should be put in place.

“Are we getting better data so that U.S. fishermen can get a better shake on tuna?” Cantwell asked Schwaab during today’s hearing. “I know State handles part of this but your data can be critical.”

“I think we have a pretty good handle on where the fish are being caught and where the fish are being landed over a long period of time and more recently,” Schwaab responded. “And I think that’s part of sort of the crux of the challenge and that these fish do as you know move historically up and down the coasts, or are available historically up and down the coast between the U.S. and Canada waters. And more recently they have predominantly been present in U.S. waters, which has led to some of the positions that have been taken more recently.

“But some of those longer term considerations as well as the interests of the processers who receive those fish up and down the coast are part of what the U.S. is factoring in our discussions regarding the future of that treaty,” Schwaab concluded.

“The Canadian fleet is so much larger than ours on the tuna but I’ll get back to you in a written question on that,” Cantwell said.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic increase in Canadian albacore fishing vessels accessing American waters, with a corresponding decrease in U.S. albacore fishing vessels and the American jobs that rely on the albacore industry. Since the treaty was suspended last year, Washington fishermen have experienced a significant increase in the number of albacore tuna caught and associated revenues. Westport albacore fishermen have experienced a 53 percent increase in albacore tuna catches and an associated 47 percent increase (valued at $5.5 million) in revenue. And in Ilwaco, fishermen experienced a 37 percent increase in albacore tuna catches and an associated nine percent (valued at $857,000) increase in revenue.