Thursday, January 22, 2015

GSI joins Gulf groups to walk Congressional halls for Gulf Seafood

by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor

High heels and wingtips clicking and clacking through the marble halls of Congress, a constant buzz of voices bouncing off Gulf Senators and Representatives office walls, hands continuously pressing the flesh and passing paper after paper; these are the sights and sounds of the Gulf Seafood Institute’s (GSI) second annual “Walk on the Hill” in the nation’s Capitol.

Members of the Gulf Seafood Institute visit with 
La. Senator David Vitter in his D.C. office. GSI members 
represent seafood interests in all five Gulf States. 
(L-R) Stan Harris of the La. Restaurant Assoc., 

Harlon Pearce of Harlon’s LA Fish, GSI Executive Director 
Margaret Henderson, seafood processor Frank Randol, 
Jim Gossen who is chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood, 
Senator David Vitter, David Krebs of Arial Seafoods 
and charter boat Captain Troy Frady. 
GSI joined with the Gulf Oyster Industry Council (GOIC) and other Gulf seafood groups to meet with the entire Gulf Congressional Delegation, resulting in a long schedule comprised of nearly 30 meetings total.

“The Gulf Seafood Institute meets regularly with Congressmen and staff, as well as various executive agencies and non-governmental organizations, to educate them on the needs and concerns of the Gulf’s diverse seafood communities,” said GSI’s executive director Margaret Henderson while walking a hallway of the Longworth building. “This annual event gives us the opportunity to communicate face-to-face issues facing Gulf seafood. It is important to every fisherman, processor, distributor, chef and restaurateur in the five Gulf States to have those representing us in Washington knowledgeable on the effects of legislation they initiate.”

According to Henderson, GSI has led the way in uniting the various Gulf groups and giving them a voice they have never had before. The politics of seafood crosses many boundaries: federal, state, local and private. The organization’s walk on Capitol Hill is one of its many programs to keep legislators and government officials aware of the needs of the Gulf’s various fishing communities.

“We have access to some of the greatest seafood in the world and we want to keep that access open to both commercial and recreational fishermen,” said Harlon Pearce owner of Harlon’s LA Fish and president of GSI’s board. “These meetings are designed to show those creating the politics of seafood how important it is to have proper and effective legislation and programs in place.”

Important Issues
In a prepared packet hand delivered to each office, GSI has outline three important issues immediately important for Gulf of Mexico seafood:

Proposed Gulf of Mexico Oyster Mega-Hatcheries
Extended drought conditions in the Gulf States, along with poor water quality, eroding coastlines, Gulf dead zones and the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon spill on living
marine resources such as oysters, have created a unique opportunity to rethink
how the Gulf of Mexico oyster habitat is created and restored. The aim of two proposed Gulf of Mexico oyster mega hatcheries is to enhance the public stock oyster reefs in all five Gulf States, as well as create new habitat resulting in a cleaner Gulf.

NMFS Implementation of Electronic Data Collection for Charter For Hire Sector
According to NOAA, the Gulf charter-for-hire and private angler components of the recreational sector support 460,000 angler trips targeting and catching red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico annually. The fishery directly supports 759 jobs, generates $113 million in business sales and contributes $64 million to the national economy. It is an extremely important economic driver for the region, but must be managed carefully to ensure longevity of the species, and the communities and businesses that depend on it.

Currently, management of the recreational red snapper sector in the Gulf is in turmoil. Based on the “best available science” and data from the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP), fishery managers have shortened the recreational red snapper season length drastically in recent years, culminating in a 9-day season in 2014. Real-time data is critical to better understand the status of the fishery and provide fishery managers with adequate tools to make the best decisions for the resource and fishermen.

Congress is urged to communicate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) directing them to utilize recently appropriated funds to roll out a robust electronic data collection program in Gulf of Mexico charter community in time for the 2015 red snapper season this June. 

H2B Migrant Worker Legislation
Seafood processors along the Gulf coast rely on temporary, seasonal foreign workers admitted to the U.S. under the H-2B Visa program to fill the most labor-intensive positions in the industry. The work done by these skilled laborers is necessary to support thousands of seafood jobs held by U.S. workers. Because of the unique nature of the seafood occupation and the rural location of many processors, the seafood industry has used Private Wage Surveys for more than 15 years to set their wage rate, often relying on State agency-provided wage surveys.

In December of 2014, the Department of Labor announced they would no longer accept PWS in determining wages for H-2B visa workers.

Current Department of Labor rules governing this program threaten the viability of various Gulf seafood communities that rely on temporary, foreign H-2B visa workers. These workers in oyster, crawfish and crab processing fill jobs that American workers refuse to do.

Congress should sign a letter to Labor Secretary Perez and support language in FY 2016 appropriations bills directing the DOL to continue accepting private wage surveys for H-2B visa workers in the seafood industry.
Crisscrossing The Capitol
The Hill Walk kicked off in the offices of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in downtown Washington just off K Street. The discussion led by Pearce centered on the importance of quickly implementing electronic monitoring for the Gulf charter-for-hire sector.

“The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is fully onboard with implementation of electronic monitoring in the Gulf charter-for-hire sector,” said Pearce who was optimistic about the meeting. “Getting the money moved from NOAA is the tough part right now, but once that is accomplished we have to have our plans in place so the funds can be matched and in place for the 2015 red snapper season.”

Later on Capitol Hill, GSI held a discussion with Senator David Vitter (R-LA) in his office to discuss areas where GSI and the Senator can work closely together. After the meeting, Texas members Jim Gossen, chairman of Sysco Louisaina Seafood, and Raz Halili, general manager of Prestige Oysters, met with freshman Representative Brian Babin, along with Texas members of GOIC.
With too many visitors for his office, Representative Cedric
Richmond of Louisiana (center) meets members of the
GSI and GOIC in the hallway. Photo: Ed Lallo

Babin, whose district includes part of Galveston Bay, conveyed to the group his deep interest in both commercial and recreational fishing, and vowed to work closely with both groups during the upcoming session. The representative, whose walls are lined with artwork of his time on the water, said he realizes the importance of the Gulf to both the economy and culture of the region.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Hill, other members of GSI joined GOIC members in a meeting with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a longtime supporter of Gulf seafood. Both groups stressed the need for the proposed Gulf oyster mega hatcheries. When questioned by the Senator on the health of the industry, Bill Walton of the Auburn University Shellfish Lab and an advisor to the Gulf Oyster Industry Council responded, “the industry is not dead, it can come back. However the time to act is now. Research is needed on the causes of our oyster decline, but we know that hatcheries can be a part of the solution.”

Walking the halls of the Rayburn Building, GSI Alabama board member and Gulf Oyster Industry Council member Chris Nelson of Alabama’s Bon Secour Fisheries said, “The strength of the Gulf Seafood Institute and the Gulf Oyster Industry Council walking together for Gulf seafood interests has been very successful. There is a lot of crossover this year on members of each group as well as issues, especially the H2B visa issue and the Gulf oyster mega hatchery. Everything seems to flow well during our face to face discussions with both Senators and Representatives, everyone has been very receptive in making attempts to help us in any way they can.”

Waiting outside of freshmen Representative Garret Graves’ office, Stan Harris, CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and a GSI member, explained the importance of the H-2B visa program. 

“The H2B visa workers have been an important labor source not only for the Gulf’s seasonal seafood seafood processors, but also to the Gulf’s hospitality industry that use seasonal labor to staff our hospitality industry during peak time periods,” he said.

GSI Founding Member Frank Randol agreed, saying he was encouraged on how supportive the Gulf legislators have been regarding the H-2B visa program.

“They are receptive and starting to engage, something that they have not done in years past,” said the seafood processor from Lafayette, Louisiana and owner of Randol’s Restaurant. “The fix we are seeking must come from the legislative branch. I feel confident that we are finally on the right path to move forward with this important issue.”

With tired and sore feet propped up in the lobby of the Hotel George, GSI member Captain Troy Frady of Distraction Charters in Orange Beach, AL said he was encouraged about the successful implementation of the Gulf charter for hire electronic data collection program scheduled for later this year.

“A majority of both the House and Senate members we have met with have been very supportive about the idea of real time data for the Gulf charter for hire industry,” he said with a tired look on his face. “It is important that we come up with a plan to implement the program where the data collected is accurate in real time and the process validates itself so the American public will continue to have the opportunity to use charter boats to enjoy the Gulf’s natural resources.”

“This walk builds a lot camaraderie among the fishing industries of the Gulf,” said David Krebs, a GSI Florida board member and president of Destin, Florida’s Ariel Seafoods. “There is important seafood legislation that is upcoming during this session of Congress. This week has just kicked off what will be a long process in educating our Congressmen and Senators on the issues affecting Gulf seafood interests. We will be back time and time again, and when called upon we will be there to give our expert testimony as needed.”

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