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Young Fishermen Bring Their Unique Perspective to Capitol Hill

by Hannah Heimbuch

Hannah, age 30, is a third-generation fisherman. She lives in Homer and drifts for salmon in Cook Inlet and longlines for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska.

The second stop on the Young Fishermen’s Educational Tour after Boston was in our nation’s Capitol. The goal of the D.C. visit was for young fishermen to learn more about federal fisheries policy, including the Magnuson Stevens Act (our nation’s primary federal fisheries law that is up for reauthorization), and also to gain experience in the politics of how federal law is made and the importance of face time with decision makers and their staff.

While our D.C. visit was a flurry of planned activities and meetings on national fisheries policy, one of the highlights were impromptu intersections and quality time spent with Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. During our first day in town we learned Senator Sullivan would be giving a talk on fisheries at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership’s 2016 Public Policy Forum and that Senator Murkowski was giving a floor speech on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Our group quickly got in touch with staff at their offices and hatched plans to see both Senators in action in these different arenas.

With Senator Murkowski, we were lucky enough to be able to tag along as she moved to and from a floor speech in the Capitol building, where she addressed the need for substance abuse recovery assistance.

Representatives of the Alaska Young Fishermen's Network take a break from the busy halls of the U.S. Senate with Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Representatives of the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network take a break from the busy halls of the U.S. Senate with Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

“On the way to the Capitol, she led the lot of us like goslings through the underground halls of the Senate building,” said Marissa Wilson, one of 12 fishermen trying to keep up with the senior Senator as she marched through basement corridors, mentally preparing for her floor speech and asking us about our time in D.C. The group got to ride the Capitol subway with the senator, squish in tight elevators with her, and watched her floor speech from the family gallery in the Capitol.

While the topic of substance abuse was not head on about fisheries, many from the group understood deeply how intertwined the issue was with coastal Alaska and access to economic opportunities such as fishing. Back in her office after the speech, our group had time to chat further with the senator about community health issues and fisheries. “Conversations on the health of our state and its residents went beyond the lip service we had come to expect on the Hill,” Wilson said. “I felt listened to. It was empowering.”

With Senator Sullivan, we were able to greet the new senator before his arrival at the Reserve Officer’s Association building where he gave a brief speech about the importance of cooperation to manage our fisheries and oceans interspersed with details on the size and importance of Alaska’s fisheries. Sullivan is now lining up to play an important leadership role in federal fisheries policy including on reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act. After the speech, he spent a good amount of time with the group outside the building where we talked fish and expressed sentiments about not rolling back provisions in MSA and protecting fishing opportunities for communities and the next generation. The genuine conversations and time spent with both Alaska senators were a special treat for the group. We thank both Senators Sullivan and Murkowski and their offices for making time for us that day!

For some of our group, it was a first-time trip to Washington, while others had been to the Capitol to talk fish with policymakers before. Traveling as the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network, however, was new ground for everyone. It was under the umbrella of this emerging group that we dove into two and a half days in D.C.

Though our young group has more fishing years ahead of them than behind them, we have solid experience with our fishing businesses and the policies that affect them. While not yet veterans to the legislative process, we are highly conversant in the needs, challenges and successes of our fishing communities. Many members of the group noted how important it is as harvesters to be aware of how national policies affect us. In D.C., we gained experience weighing in on policy issues with a strong and united voice.

“After meeting with a group of very receptive advisors to Congress members from Alaska and Washington, it struck me that we were sitting in seats left warm by lobbyists against our precise causes,” noted Darren Platt, a Kodiak-based fisherman.

The young fishermen prepare to hop aboard the U.S Capitol Subway.

The young fishermen prepare to hop aboard the U.S Capitol Subway.

“With goals such as weakening sustainability features of the Magnuson Stevens Act, or bypassing the North Pacific Fishery Management Council through congressional action, there are powerful interests working diligently in the Capitol to undermine the long-term well-being of fishing communities. One can only hope that a group of bright-eyed and passionate young fishermen can form a compelling enough voice to help subvert the influence of these well organized and financially endowed interests.”

Through AMCC’s partnership with other small-boat fishery groups through the Fishing Community Coalition, we were able to observe the complexity of finding common ground among the nation’s diverse fishing interests. We also learned from meetings with policy leaders, congressional staffers, and lobbyists about current issues and how these diverse entities approach policy development.

Fishermen Claire Laukitis (Homer) and [name] (town) chat with Sen. Dan Sullivan (where?).

Claire Laukitis (Homer) and Elsa Sebastian (Sitka) chat with Sen. Dan Sullivan before his talk at the Ocean Leadership Consortium’s Public Policy Forum.

Perhaps most importantly, we tested the waters for our network’s future in this national arena. As an organizer for the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network, the most important takeaway for me from our time in D.C. was developing the expectations and goals for our ongoing efforts. Our ability and willingness to be at the table—ready to build relationships and find solutions amongst a diverse group of people and fisheries—is essential to our future in fish.

David Fleming, a trip participant who fishes in Prince William Sound, reflected on his time in D.C. “This was an eye-opening experience that informed me of the political process of fisheries management at the federal level. I gained insightful knowledge that I will pass along to my family and local fishing community.”

The Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network has a strong future to serve as a unified voice for our industry, and as independent, forward-thinking leaders for sustainable fish and fishing communities. We’ve become fishermen in some of the best-run fisheries in the world, and we have high standards for management, equity and conservation. We are also acutely aware of the significant challenges coastal communities and industry leaders across the nation face as policies and fisheries evolve, ecosystems shift, and major economic drivers challenge the stability of and access to our marine resources.

While the halls of state and federal buildings are full of seafood lobbyists advocating for their own interests, our group is working from a unique vantage point: We are well-informed, invested and conscientious food harvesters with our careers at stake; we are intricately dependent on and connected to this natural resource; and as we make choices to build businesses and raise families in the fishing way of life, we are deeply committed to the long-term health of coastal communities and their fisheries.

In short, we are an essential resource for people trying to make good decisions about fisheries management in Alaska and the U.S. This small group—and our many peers at home—are emerging leaders for the next fishing era, with the potential and perhaps the obligation to be far less enamored of status quo policies, aging fish wars and expectations created by yesterday’s catch. As an emerging network of independent fishermen, we are inspired and motivated by the D.C. visit to plan to build our capacity and take serious steps toward growing the skills, knowledge and relationships needed to be excellent leaders and ambassadors for our fisheries.

Reach out Hannah to be part of the growing Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network at 

Learn more about the Young Fishermen’s Educational Tour and stay tuned to the AMCC website for future blog posts.  

Thanks to sponsors of the Young Fishermen’s Educational Tour: Salmon Sisters, Edible Alaska, United Fishermen of Alaska, BulletProof Nets, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Marine Fish Conservation Network and many AMCC members!

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