February 25, 2010
- Over 20 federal lawmakers joined several thousand fishermen from around the country next to the US Capitol yesterday in a three-hour rally supporting national fisheries reform. The first reports from journalists on the scene tabbed attendance at between 3,000 and 5,000 with fishermen standing elbow-to-elbow in Washington DC. The rally was historic in that it was the first time that members of both the recreational and commercial sector found common ground in a cause for reform. "An incredible success," said Jim Donofrio, Executive Director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) and one of the key organizers of the historic rally.
The rally drew a fairly equal mix of recreational and commercial fishermen from as far as away as Alaska and California in united opposition to the strict federal fishing requirements contained in the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA). The nation's primary fishing law helped fishermen when it was enacted in 1976 by eliminating foreign fishing, but during reauthorizations in 1996 and 2006 new language has mandated rebuilding fish populations under arbitrary timetables resulting in the closure of many healthy and rebuilt fisheries.
Carrying signs and banners with the message I Fish, I Vote and Reform Magnuson Now, most participants came by chartered bus from points up and down the down coast which let off at nearby Union Station. The RFA estimates that were about 40 chartered buses, some arriving as early as Tuesday afternoon, and a few were hounded by weather-related traffic problems in New York and New Jersey depositing attendees on the scene nearly an hour into the rally. "We have close to 4,000 fishermen. This was better and bigger than we ever thought," Donofrio said.
Those who arrived after the noon start missed an impassioned opening speech by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), lead sponsor of Senate Bill 1255, the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act. "Shame on the Magnuson-Stevens Act," Schumer said MSA as currently written denies fishermen access to healthy and rebuilding stocks due to arbitrary, 'time-specific' deadlines. "We need flexibility to be able to thrive," Schumer promised the crowd, while charging federal bureaucrats with failure to recognize the impact of their decisions on working families. "We need to start caring about our fishermen as much as our fish.
The bipartisan unity that could be seen in the crowd between commercial and recreational fishermen was well-reflected on stage, as one by one democrats and republicans took to the microphone in support of their coastal constituents. Sen. George LeMieux (R-FL) encouraged fishermen to visit their legislators, telling them "we've got to change this law." LeMieux said the federal fisheries law was "keeping you out of work, it's keeping the tackle shop out of work, it's keeping the hotel out of work, it's keeping the restaurants out of work."
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a longtime champion of coastal issues with a proven track record in protecting the ocean environment has been a champion of the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act legislation in the House (HR 1584), and praised the fishermen for coming to DC with their concerns. "There is nothing more important than grass roots," Pallone told demonstrators. "The science is broken and what they are doing is wrong," Pallone said of how catch limits are determined. "We need flexibility ... that's the only way we're going to make some changes around here."
"You can't brush aside basic science," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), co-sponsor of the Schumer Bill. "When did flexibility become an ugly word," said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), adding "we're not going to stand for it. We'll be there and we'll get it done." "This is about our right to fish. The bureaucrats have to get their heads out of wherever it is they are," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) to cheers from the crowd.
On a day when legislators were busy with hearings on the banking industry and the Toyota recall, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) found time to address his fishing constituents and said he wished the banking regulators treated the financial industry "as harshly" as fishery regulators have treated the fishing industry.
Many legislators spoke about U.S. regulations resulting in more than 80 percent of the fish Americans eat being imported from countries like China and Russia, which Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina said "If you're gone, the Chinese own the fish market in North America. We can't let that happen."
"We're going to work it hard. That's 10,000 miles of fish beds closed; it will put hundreds of commercial fishermen out of a job. I'm hoping these guys (the anglers) can at least get members of Congress to take a look at another option," said Rep. Henry Brown (R-SC).
"Our fishing communities have taken a hit, which is why it is so heartening that so many have still taken the time and resources to come march on Washington in support of their industry," said Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), sentiments shared by fellow coastal congressmen like Rep. John Adler (D-NJ), Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC), Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY), Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. John Mica (R-FL), all members of Congress who spoke on stage yesterday.
In a passionate speech directed at Gloucester fishermen, state Senator Bruce Tarr (R-MA) said he supported changes he called the salvation of fishermen in New England, flexibility modification which would allow more reasonable rebuilding timelines while still achieving conservation goals and sustained fishing communities." "We don't have a minute to spare we're losing commercial fishing boats, we're losing the ability to fish recreational, this makes all the sense in the world, it's not an unreasonable measure," Tarr said.
Together with fellow state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante (D-MA), the Massachusetts delegation stole the show by returning to the park at 2:30 Wednesday with Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) the newest member of the Senate. Brown, Tarr and Ferrante led Massachusetts fishermen off to a meeting in the Senate, while North Carolina Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) took their constituents off to gain more support for Flexibility.
R 1584 picked up three additional co-sponsors this week due in large part to the February 24th rally (29 total co-sponsors), while S 1255 gained another three supporters (for a total of 5). The lobbying effort in DC by RFA staffers in support of these vitally important coastal bills will continue.
If you have photos to share from the fishermen's rally in Washington DC on February 24th, be sure to visit the RFA Facebook page and connect with RFA members nationwide.