PUBLISHED: 11:08 AM on Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Fish Factor
Bill could give health benefits to fishermen Fishermen and their families could soon have access to affordable health insurance if a proposed measure gets the nod from Congress.

Representatives Barney Frank and John Tierney of Massachusetts have introduced legislation that includes funding for fishermen's health care. It calls for funding at three different levels, according to J.J. Bartlett, president of the Fishing Partnership Health Plan based in Newton, MA.

"The first level would be for research and strategic planning so the fishing community in each state would have the opportunity to gather demographic information on their fishing families, and create a plan suited to their state. The next level is for implementation of the plan, and the third tier is for ongoing operation. It is a gradual progression of funding that would allow every U.S. fishing family the opportunity to research, plan and then run a health care program in their own state," Bartlett said in a phone interview.

The national plan is modeled after a successful program called the Fishing Partnership Health Plan that began in Massachusetts in 1997. A combination of federal ($3.8 million since 1997) and state funding ($3 million annually through 2007) has been used to leverage private investment by making monthly health insurance premiums affordable to an underserved population. "Fishermen are three to four times more likely than the national average to be uninsured," Bartlett said.

Prior to the start of the Massachusetts program, 43 percent of the state's fishermen had no health insurance. That figure has now been reduced to 13 percent. Bartlett said fishermen pay 60 percent of the cost for a very comprehensive plan that covers preventive care, office visits, medications, chiropractic, mental health and substance abuse services and emergency treatment anywhere in the world. "Because the fishermen pay the majority of the cost, we've been able to show that for every one dollar of federal funding we have spent, we've save the government $4.15," Bartlett said. He added that payments are based on a sliding scale, and participants must show that they receive more than half of their annual income from fishing.

The plan at the national level is included in proposed language in reauthorization of the nation's primary fish laws: the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The legislation, listed under H.R. 4940, Section (e) is called the Fishing Industry Health Care Demonstration Program. Bartlett stresses that it is critical that the measure is included in the final version of the MSA, which is scheduled to be completed this year. "We can't allow fishermen's health care to get lost in the larger debate over this legislation," he said.

"I urge every fishing family in the U.S. to write a letter and fax it to their senators and representatives telling them to make sure the language is included in the final version. Then when it is passed, the funding will be there for the research, planning, implementation and ongoing operation of a high quality, affordable health plan for all fishermen and their families," Bartlett said.

Mark Vinsel, director of the United Fishermen of Alaska agrees (

"UFA has recognized the need for fishermen's health care for years. Ultimately, this program could be a cost savings to the state and medical providers, especially in rural areas," Vinsel said. He added that UFA has been in contact with Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young in support of the health care program. The newly formed Commercial Fishermen of America ( is also backing the effort.

"If we all work together, we can get this done," said J.J. Bartlett. Get more information at or by calling (617) 928-3443.

Fishing winners

Winners of the first annual marine Stewardship and Sustainability Awards have been announced by NOAA Fisheries. The award was developed to recognize groups and individuals who have advanced conservation and earth-friendly use of U.S. marine resources.

Sen. Ted Stevens received the Special Recognition Award for his advocacy for science-based management, and for working tirelessly to win the support of the U.S. Congress for the laws that form the basis of federal management and conservation programs.

The Pollock Conservation Cooperative, comprising boats of the At-Sea Processors Association, received the Stewardship and Sustainability Award for voluntarily dividing up annual quotas among its fishing companies. This led to reduced bycatch and "resulted in a 50 percent increase in the amount of pollock products made from each pound of harvested fish," according to a NOAA press release.

Holland American Line received the Conservation Partnership Award for taking the initiative to develop and promote the adoption of international whale avoidance measures.

Ed Melvin of the Washington Sea Grant Program received the Science, Research and Technology Award for working with industry to develop sea bird avoidance methods in longline fisheries. Melvin's research has reduced bycatch of sea birds by at least 80 percent and is being used as a model in world fisheries.

Fish Farewell

John Doyle, one of the nation's first Sea Grant advisory agents, has passed away. Doyle was the most outspoken advocate for, among other things, improving salmon quality. He used vivid pictures to show bruising and other damage to fish by walking on them, handling them by the tail, or tossing them, especially how it appeared to end users at retail counters. Doyle stressed that chilling fish is critical and believed that "nothing is better than ice, and plenty of it." Doyle was the first to drive home the point that "fish is food," and coined the now standard phrase: "Keep it clean, keep it cold and keep it moving."

Welch, who lives in Kodiak, has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.