Rep. Huffman, Rep. Palazzo Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Improve Federal Fisheries Disaster Relief Program

January 08, 2020

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, Representatives Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Steven Palazzo (R-MS) introduced the Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act (Fishery FUNDD Act), which will improve the federal fishery disaster process and ensure more timely disaster relief for impacted communities. Rep. Kilmer (D-WA) and Rep. Herrera Beutler (R-WA) are original cosponsors. Senator Roger Wicker introduced similar legislation, which was approved by the Senate Commerce committee in late 2019. 

The Fishery FUNDD Act would set a timeline for the federal government to respond to a fishery disaster request, and set a timeline for disbursal of appropriated funds following a disaster. It will also clarify the disaster request process, including by allowing direct payments to be made to affected members of fishing communities as an eligible use of relief funds. Rep. Huffman, the Chair of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, is a long-time champion for improving federal fishing policy and providing relief for fishing communities affected by natural disasters and other fishery closures.

“Across the country, fishermen, tribes, and coastal communities depend on productive fisheries. However, far too many suffer while waiting for federal relief after unexpected disasters. On the North Coast of California, we’ve seen how ocean heat waves, domoic acid blooms, and drought have led to devastating consequences for our most important fisheries. As climate change impacts increase, it is more important than ever that we make sure fishing communities are as resilient as possible,” said Rep. Huffman. “That means ensuring the federal disaster relief process is implemented efficiently, and making sure funds are provided in a timely manner to those impacted by a fishery disaster. This bill will help make federal agencies more responsive to communities who have suffered a fishery disaster, while we continue to work in Congress to deliver the needed funds.”

“The Mississippi Gulf Coast has experienced significant seafood and marine life loss from the Bonnet Carré Spillway releasing an unprecedented amount of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound,” said Rep. Palazzo. “While Mississippi’s federal fisheries disaster declaration was approved within several months, this is unfortunately not the case for other communities around the nation. The Fishery FUNDD Act will streamline what has been a years-long process into a transparent system that will provide disaster relief to fishermen who have experienced harsh conditions out of their control.”

“In Washington, our coastal fisheries are an essential part of our local economies. In recent years, multiple disasters on our coasts have wreaked havoc on our fisheries and on the finances of the people who rely on them to make a living,” said Rep. Kilmer. “This bipartisan bill will expand eligibility for disaster funds so charter boat operators, processors, and other fishing related businesses that are impacted can get access to these critical relief and recovery funds. Importantly, because delays can damage communities, this bill will also increase accountability, ensuring that when the federal government commits to helping in the wake of disaster, our tribal, commercial, and recreational fishing communities see these relief and recovery funds on time and in full.”

"The failure of a fishing season is devastating to fishermen and their communities, but in recent years, the poor performance of our fishery disaster assistance program has itself become a disaster," said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Fishery disasters impact port communities, but they also harm the broader economy and limit Americans' access to domestic seafood. This important bill will enhance our commercial fishing safety net, ensuring that fishery disaster assistance reaches communities in need in weeks instead of years."

This bill is the most recent step in Rep. Huffman’s career-long push to deliver federal disaster relief funds to fishing communities, including leading the effort to secure $29.65 million in federal assistance to North Coast fishing communities that suffered economic impacts due to disasters dating back to 2015.

Under current law, fishing communities can receive federal financial assistance when fish populations decline, during closed seasons, or if other disruptions cause economic losses. However, the disaster relief process has received criticism for being slow to respond to disaster requests and to allocate funds. The Fishery FUNDD Act clarifies the process and implements timelines for faster delivery of disaster relief to impacted communities.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Maintains the authority of the Secretary of Commerce to determine fishery disasters;
  • Specifies required information for disaster requests, guidelines for evaluation of requests, and required information for spend plans;
  • Specifies criteria for determinations based on revenue loss and includes consideration of impacts on charter fishing and subsistence uses;
  • Sets a 120-day timeline for the Secretary to evaluate a request, either upon receipt or immediately after the close of the fishery season, and sets a 90-day timeline for disbursal of appropriated funds after completed spend plans are submitted;
  • Specifies the eligible uses of fishery disaster relief funds, including direct payments to affected members of the fishing community, habitat restoration and conservation, management improvements, job training, public information campaigns, and preventative measures for future disasters, and would prioritize hiring fishermen displaced by the fishery disaster for this work;
  • Requires the Department of Commerce to make a request in its annual budget for outstanding, unfunded fishery disasters and requires a GAO report on how fishery managers are preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change, a major factor in recent fishery disasters; and,
  • Consolidates the legal framework for the federal fishery disaster declaration process under the Magnuson Stevens Act
  • Authorizes appropriations as necessary, including supplemental appropriations.

The text of the legislation, numbered H.R. 5548, may be found here.