There’s a West Wind Blowing

By Noah Oppenheim

Three years ago I wrote my first Fishermen’s News column for PCFFA. This one is my last.

It has been quite a trip running this organization. Doing this job has put me deep in the trenches on an extraordinarily broad set of issues. Every day has been different, and I’ve met hundreds of people who I deeply respect and admire for their dedication to the cause. I’m going to miss it.

For the past three years I have had the privilege of serving as a leading voice in defense of your profession in the halls of power, engaging in fights that are always worth fighting, and securing victories that make the fishing industry, and the world, a better place. It will be tough to leave this opportunity behind.

These are difficult times for commercial fisheries on the West Coast. Despite that fact, I can’t help but reflect on the tremendous wins we have scored together. Not long after I was hired we successfully fought the state of California’s proposal to increase landings taxes by an average of 1,700 percent. We successfully brought home and distributed more than $25 million in federal fishery disaster funds for California crab fisheries. We kept the fishing industry alive by securing an exemption from Assembly Bill 5 for commercial fishing businesses, which would have reclassified every single worker in the California industry. We halted, at least temporarily, Governor Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels project that would have destroyed the San Francisco Bay Delta. We killed numerous other terrible ideas that never saw the light of day thanks to our quick and nimble responses and good connections. And of course our frequent wins in court, thanks to our staff’s tenacity and our strong relationships with attorneys who care, have kept fisheries and fishermen afloat when dire alternatives would have caused severe harm.

This decision, then, does not come easily for me. First and foremost, the need to move on is driven by my desire to put down roots and start a family and the recognition that the place my fiancée and I live and work in, the San Francisco Bay Area, is simply not the place where that can happen. I’m moving back to Maine, where I grew up and began my career in fisheries. I’m sure I’ll remain in touch with many of you.
As I write this column our search for my replacement is proceeding, and very soon our all-fisherman board of directors will select the top candidate. I have no doubt he will be up to the task.

PCFFA’s next executive director will have tremendous challenges on his hands. The new director will find himself immediately in the trenches on whale entanglement issues, offshore energy development, water policy, aquaculture, and federal and state fisheries legislation. This person will clearly need to have the capacity and drive to immediately advocate for the survival of the Dungeness crab fishery and all other fixed gear fisheries of the West Coast in the strongest possible terms. He will be building and maintaining relationships and managing a diverse portfolio of issues. He will take charge of PCFFA’s communications, lobbying, legal, and fundraising operations.
But these challenges are not insurmountable; nobody in this business is indispensable. With your support, the next leader of the Federation can continue to take it to the house on important policy issues from San Diego to Bellingham.

I want to take a moment and talk about what kind of support it’s going to take for that work to be meaningful and effective. The most difficult challenge in doing this job, by far, has been coming to terms with the fact that every single one of our members would prefer if this job didn’t have to exist. Every single one of you and your colleagues would prefer if we could all just shut up and fish. But that is not the world we live in, and if it ever existed, it’s not coming back while any of us are alive. You need organizations to engage on your behalf on external issues. That’s what PCFFA and many other organizations were created to do.

Mistrust of institutions, particularly those established to work directly on behalf of fishermen, is an inherent part of the fishing industry. Chances are you are an independent business owner or independent contractor. Why should you surrender that independence?
The reason why is simple: this industry is stronger together, and our opponents continue to be far better organized and financed than we are. We have a leg up on them, however: the fishing industry feeds the people, and the West Coast loves its seafood. That’s been enough for now, but that might not always be enough.

The fishing industry can take a lesson from other food producing sectors of the economy: support your trade associations, reinvest in policy-focused organizations, and find literate and intelligent ways to tell your stories and make your issues known in the halls of power. Everyone else in the food economy is doing it. And chances are, they’re reinvesting a significant amount more of their revenues into these efforts than small-scale commercial fishing does. For example, many food producing enterprises reinvest 10 percent of revenues into advertising, policy, and R&D as a rule.

If you have recently contributed to your local port association, or a regional association that represents you, or you donate your time to participating in working groups that solve problems, then you’re doing the right thing. But if you haven’t, you are benefiting from the work others are accomplishing on your behalf. Those in the latter category need to put some skin in the policy game. Whoever is ably representing your cause, your sector, or your community needs your support.

In my first column three years ago, I wrote “…when I look around me right now, beginning my career in the fishing industry in earnest, the battles that I’m going to harken back to are already raging around all of us. There are going to be some knock-down, drag-out fights in the near future. I am here to make sure that when we talk about them to each other and the new upstarts, thirty years from now, we’re telling tales of victory.”

Fighting for fishermen and the health of the resources you harvest, scoring scrappy wins, dealing with painful losses; it’s all been worth it. I’ve got some good memories to take back east with me. Thank you for that.

Noah Oppenheim is, until approximately April 10, 2020, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and can be reached at PCFFA’s Southwest Regional Office at PO Box 29370 San Francisco, CA 94129-0370,  (415) 561-5080. PCFFA’s Website is: