By Mike Conroy
In April, Noah Oppenheim departed PCFFA to return to the East Coast. As he noted in his departing column in April’s issue of Fishermen’s News, during his three-year tenure as PCFFA Executive Director, he accomplished a great deal of good for our West Coast fleet, expertly steering us through several near disasters.
I am excited to be taking the helm as the incoming Executive Director of PCFFA. When I first sat down to write this, I had intended for it to be about me; but given the very real challenges we are facing, I am going to present an abridged version.
I started working on fishing boats during High School and continued during summers while I attended college. I have operated both charter vessels off the Southern California Coast and commercial fishing vessels – participating in a number of West Coast fisheries. I took a break from fishing to obtain a law degree and am currently a member in good standing with the California State Bar.
Seven years ago, I formed a small business focusing on commercial fishing representation across a wide spectrum of venues. In addition to providing legal advice to a number of small family fishing businesses, I have represented fishermen and fishing associations, from a wide spectrum of west coast fisheries, internationally through the RFMO process, and domestically at the PFMC and California Fish and Game Commission and State and Federal Legislatures. In a future column I will expand on these – but for now I want to focus on you, your small businesses, the communities that rely upon your tireless efforts and the consumers who ultimately benefit from your work.
As this issue goes to press, California’s commercial fishing industry is in peril, primarily from a reality that manifested in a matter of weeks. To be sure, COVID-19’s long-term impacts will not be known for some time; but we are already experiencing short-term impacts on a rapidly evolving timeline. Since mid-March, ALL Californians are under a stay home order; restaurants are closed to dine-in services; buyers are telling our fishermen to stay-in as they have no markets; and the closure has only begun.
This is not just a California issue nor is it just a West Coast issue – this is a National issue. I am encouraged by conversations I have taken part in over the past couple of days where creative marketing solutions are being discussed. By the time you are reading this, I hope some of these will have been implemented and we will be plying our trade.
When I interviewed for the position, I had a future vision for PCFFA. One that focused on bigger picture issues while retaining Zeke Grader’s passion for speaking truth to power. During the 47th Annual Zeke Grader Fisheries Forum held by the California Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture California’s, Secretary of Natural Resources, Mr. Wade Crowfoot, announced the State’s goal of doubling populations of key salmon species.
PCFFA will work with Secretary Crowfoot to help him meet this goal; and remind him of it when advocating for freshwater policies that support that endeavor.
In addition to our long-standing work to protect salmon habitat and, by extension, our historic salmon fisheries, there are several over-arching issues I intend to prioritize for the benefit of our members.
Food Security: The US is far too reliant on foreign sourced, imported seafood. COVID-19 has validated what many of us have been saying for quite some time. Buy local, eat local movements have been gaining a stronghold for a while now. We need to better differentiate our local, sustainably harvested seafood from that coming from overseas.
Access: The ability of our fishermen to access fisheries, alternative markets, and fishing grounds. While separately identified, they are inexorably linked. Our family-owned small businesses need access to a suite of options. Even a small increase in open access groundfish limits could be the difference between business success and failure. As we are painfully now seeing, dependence on limited options to get seafood from our fishermen to the end consumer is bringing the industry to its knees. Conversations have begun which could reshape the supply side as we respond to disruptions caused by COVID-19. To be sure, these opportunities are likely temporary in nature, but could provide a solid foundation for future improvements. We need to fight for continued access to traditional, historic and productive fishing grounds. New and untested uses are being proposed in ocean waters off the West Coast.
Recruitment: During the Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries (MONF) 3 conference (back in 2013), the greying of the fleet was a key topic of conversation. I attend a lot of fishery events: meetings, celebrations, cookouts, and this is still something that needs to be addressed. We need to capitalize on commercial fishing apprenticeship programs to attract and train the next generation of seafood harvesters. Additionally, younger fishermen need to become more active in the management process. I am encouraged and impressed by the younger folks I see at these meetings. They are well-spoken and represent industry well. To the extent PCFFA can support sending younger fishermen to the Marine Resource Education Program (MREP) West Coast, I am all for it.
National Voice: We, the commercial fishing industry, need a national voice and presence that looks out for ALL commercial fishing interests. Fishermen should be mentioned alongside farmers and ranchers as we are all integral parts of our nation’s food supply system.
You: I represent you and your industry. Without your thoughts, insights and opinions I am functionally rudderless. There will be times where you disagree with what we are doing; but give me the chance to explain why a particular course of action was chosen.
I would be remiss if I didn’t offer my sincere thanks to Noah for his efforts in speaking truth to power. He shepherded PCFFA through challenging and novel times and I had the opportunity to work with him on a number of important issues. From my perspective, obtaining an exemption for commercial fishing from coverage under California’s AB 5 was a monumental victory that could not have been done without Noah and his litany of contacts both in and outside of Sacramento. Through his leadership, PCFFA developed and refined important relationships and averted potential catastrophes. We wish him great good luck in all his future endeavors!
Mike Conroy is the incoming new Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). He can be contacted at the PCFFA/IFR National Office at: PCFFA, PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370, (415) 561-5080 or by email to: email@example.com.