By Hannah Heimbuch
It’s amazing what you can fit into three days. In the case of three Alaska Marine Conservation Council (AMCC) staff members this October, it was more than 6,000 miles, a half-day of lobbying training and several dozen meetings with congressional offices, agency leaders, and conservation partners in our nation’s capital.
This trip to Washington, D.C. was my first, and allowed me to witness firsthand what it looks like when diverse groups truly collaborate in pursuit of a better future. This is the promise I see in the Fishing Communities Coalition (FCC).
Presenting as a unified voice on national fisheries policy, the FCC is made up of conservation-minded, community-based fishing organizations that have found common ground in their policy concerns, despite hailing from different corners of America’s coastline. At present, the FCC includes AMCC and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, both from Alaska; the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance, from Texas; and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, both calling New England home.
For a few short, busy days, we joined our partners from the FCC to visit House and Senate offices on Capitol Hill. We were there to introduce ourselves to decision makers from coastal states across the country. Collectively, we spoke to agency leaders and congressional staffers, covering a variety of policy issues important to our small boat fleets: bycatch reduction, electronic/at-sea monitoring, community access to local fisheries, and improved fisheries data collection, and a strengthened Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) reauthorization bill.
As House and Senate offices look at options for MSA reauthorization moving forward, the FCC believes it is vital that this important law uphold or enhance current standards of science-based, conservation-minded fisheries management, while also ensuring access for local communities. These essential measures guide the sustainability of our nation’s fish stocks and fishing communities.
In the bycatch realm, we shared important information about the halibut bycatch crisis occurring in the Bering Sea — from the massive removal of juvenile halibut by trawl vessels, to the precarious health of directed halibut fisheries coast-wide. The group reminded congressional delegates of the national importance of the halibut fishery, and of the bad precedent being set, with halibut bycatch becoming the priority use of halibut in the North Pacific.
Group members also voiced a need for progressive policies supporting robust at-sea or electronic monitoring, and cohesion of those practices across Council regions. Issues of insufficient data, major funding challenges, and ease of small-boat monitoring were important coalition-wide, including to small boat fleets in New England deeply concerned about excessive haddock bycatch.
Finally, we communicated the continued need to support local access to fisheries. The coalition shared the success stories and ongoing needs for those access rights by pointing out unique community solutions across the country, such as permit and quota banks, while also pushing for improved community access provisions in the reauthorized MSA.
During our Capital Hill visits, our coalition team divided up into two groups and managed to make 21 meetings with Senate and House staffers in a single day. We covered some significant ground — both under our feet and in our policy work — using our united voice to amplify these important issues. We were able to meet directly with two Alaskan delegates, Senator Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young. Sitting next to fellow fishermen and fisheries leaders from around the country, and speaking together for responsible policies, was a truly empowering experience.
It is AMCC’s hope that as we continue to advocate for federal policies that support a sustainable fishing future, we can offer that experience to more of our community fishermen, infusing voices from Alaska’s small boat fisheries into this national arena. We believe it’s particularly vital that young fishermen are given the opportunity to participate in this policy work, something I personally look forward to developing.
Those of us that hope to be fishing for the next 30 years — those of us that want to continue the tradition of fishing families and strong local fisheries — must help to guide the long-term vision of the federal policies that do and will shape management of our marine resources. We must demand robust science- and conservation-based standards that allow fisheries, communities and ecosystems to thrive together.
It was incredibly encouraging to see the FCC paving the way for more community voices — the young and veteran alike — to be heard in a meaningful and collaborative way at a national level. As I head back home to Alaska, it is with the knowledge that our local, regional and statewide work is united with this national conservation ethic, of which AMCC and its members should be proud.