The 2008 Alaska legislative session might be a (near) wrap, but several new "fish laws" are still moving at a good clip through Congress.
One is aimed at improving the safety of seafood surging into the U.S. from foreign countries.
"This bill will deal with about 80% of the seafood consumed by Americans, because it is imported seafood," said Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-AK) a co-sponsor of the bi-partisan bill. "We've had enormous increases in imports, but strangely enough, we only inspect about 1.6% of that seafood."
Seafoods from foreign aquaculture operations (mostly farmed shrimp, salmon and tilapia) often are not held to the same health and environmental standards as U.S. producers.
"Some of this is full of all kinds of crap. It is not fit for consumption," Stevens said in a phone conversation from Washington, D.C.
The seafood safety bill would expand the authority of NOAA and U.S. Food and Drug agents to test and track imported seafood as it is distributed throughout the U.S. FDA agents also will have authority to inspect foreign seafood operations and facilities. Funding for the seafood safety program has been authorized at $15 million through 2013.
Agents already are in Chile inspecting its farmed salmon industry, according to the Pew Environmental Group. The FDA will gather data on chemical use in five fish farms and assess Chile's overall operations, a press release said.
"In contrast with Norway and Scotland, Chile has not been forthcoming with adequate data on the amount of antibiotics, anti-foulants and other chemicals used in its operations. The public needs to know," said Andrea Kavanagh, an aquaculture specialist and Pew spokesperson.
Last year Chile sent over 250 million pounds of farmed salmon to U.S. markets, and only 40 samples were tested by the FDA, a Pew report said.
Stop fish pirates!
Another new law aims to stop illegal fishing on the high seas, a piracy valued at $9 billion annually. The International Fisheries Stewardship & Enforcement Act of 2008, introduced last week by Senators Stevens and Dan Inouye (D-HI), would tighten U.S. laws, and ban products from illegal, under reported and unregulated (IUU) fisheries from entering this country.
"These huge vessels the size of battleships fish on the high seas, then dump it in various places. They know what they are doing is illegal, and they try to convince the world they have the right to fish outside the 200 mile limit using any method they choose," Stevens said. "We want to send a strong message to the world that these vessels and fish products are not welcome in U.S. ports and we hope other nations will follow suit."
Stevens said he is working with the U.N. and hopes to get global support to stop IUU fishing this fall.
"The world did not take any action against high seas driftnets until we did it. Same for the 200 mile limit. We went to the U.N. and asked them to follow us and they did. Now we're going to do the same thing with IUU fisheries."
Senator Stevens said curtailing IUU fishing is especially important to protect waters of the Arctic Ocean, which are expanding from global warming and can be entered from many regions.
Stevens said he is optimistic that IUU, seafood safety and other "fish laws" will be passed by Congress. "Most of these will not have to be debated. They will be worked out on a consent agreement, and I think these bills should go very quickly," Stevens said. "Also, we have built strong bi-partisan support. That has made things work out much more easily."
Farmers of the sea
It appears the keepers of the U.S. Farm Bill have finally opened the door a crack to America's fishermen. (U.S. fish farmers have long been eligible for subsidies and other federal programs and benefits.)
"The House indicates it is going along with my amendment that allows the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to make loans to small commercial fishermen, the same way they make loans to small farmers," Senator Stevens said.
"This will help the next generation of fishermen be able to get long term, low interest loans to help with purchases of vessels and permits and operating expenses," said Mark Vinsel, director of United Fishermen of Alaska. "The fleet is graying - and to continue sustainable fisheries, the first thing we need to sustain is the occupation."
Also tagged onto the Farm Bill is a measure by Sen. Lisa Murkowski that will help reduce the tax burden to Exxon award recipients.
Another bill coming before lawmakers this week is the Commercial Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Act. It would provide $50 million in matching grants to states or organizations to jump start health care programs for fishing industry families.
"Alaska's delegation can't go it alone. Any coastal senators should be hearing from their fishermen in support of fishermen's health care," said UFA's Vinsel. "If they are not hearing from us, then we can't expect anything from them. But we need them to help support our industry."
To provide a 'global snapshot of the trash problem out on the water,' the environmental group Ocean Conservancy organized an International Coastal Cleanup day last September. Nearly 400,000 volunteers scoured 33,000 miles of shoreline in 76 countries and in 45 U.S. states. In all, they picked up 6 million pounds of trash in one day from world beaches.
The volume of the trash tells only part of the story. To learn how people were behaving around or on the water, the Conservancy cataloged the collected trash into more than 7 million items. In all, 57 percent of the trash came from 2 million food wrappings, containers, cups, plates and plastic eating utensils and 1.2 million bottles and beverage cans. Thirty three percent of the ocean trash came from smokers. Beach combers and divers collected 2.3 million cigarette butts, filters and cigar tips.
It reveals a "general carelessness" about what's being tossed into the water, the Conservancy concluded in a report released last week on Earth Day. Find it at www.oceanconservancy.org