Sunday, March 26, 2023
March 26, 2023

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$300M in fisheries disaster relief makes it into federal spending bill


A massive congressional appropriations bill made public Tuesday includes $300 million in disaster assistance for fishing families and communities buffeted by downturns in Bering Sea crab as well as some Alaska and Washington salmon harvests.

There also was a push to include agricultural legislation championed by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, that would have provided a pathway to legal residency for undocumented U.S. farmworkers and also revamped a visa program that brings in foreign guest workers. But that legislation did not make it into the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that includes funding to avert a shutdown of the federal government.

The full House and Senate still need to vote on the spending package.

The $300 million in Alaska and Washington fisheries disaster funds is aimed at direct payments to crabbers and fishers and support for research and habitat restoration, according to Washington Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.

The Washington and Alaska congressional delegations joined together to press for a fisheries disaster declaration made last week by U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Much of the fishery disaster money would assist Northwest and Alaska-based Bering Sea crabbers, and the communities, such as St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, where the catch is processed.

The fleet of some 60 vessels — typically staffed by a half-dozen or more crew members — was slammed by closures of the 2021 and 2022 fall Bristol Bay red king crab harvests as well as a very small 2022 winter snow crab harvest and the first-ever cancellation of the upcoming winter harvest.

The snow crab fishery collapsed in the aftermath of marine heat waves in 2018 and 2019 while Bristol Bay red king crab stocks have been on a longer-term decline.

Disaster relief funds also can be used to aid participants in some other Alaska commercial fisheries, including the 2021 Norton Sound red king crab, Alaska Kuskokwim salmon and Chignik salmon harvests.

A portion of the money also could be used to assist fishermen who where hit by downturns in Washington’s 2019 Columbia River, Willapa Bay and Puget salmon fisheries as well as the 2020 ocean salmon fisheries.

“I will continue work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that our fishing families, seafood businesses, and communities are able to access these as soon as possible,” Cantwell said in a written statement.

The agricultural legislation Newhouse hoped to see included in the omnibus spending bill was a bipartisan effort that made it through the House in 2021. But the compromise did not gain the backing of all of the agricultural industry, including the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The bill, which Newhouse co-sponsored with California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, would have overhauled the federal H-2A visa program that recruits foreign laborers, and included provisions that enabled these workers, as well as undocumented farmworkers, pathways to legal U.S. residence.

“We’re offering them an opportunity for legal status so that they don’t have to sneak across the border. They don’t have to pay a coyote [smuggler] thousands of dollars and put their lives at risk,” Newhouse said in an October interview.

Other changes included enabling dairy farmers to make use of H-2A foreign workers.

“It is a sad state of affairs that at this point, Senate leadership refused to listen to the pleas of farmers, farmworkers, and families across America who are struggling due to the agriculture labor crisis and include the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in this year’s omnibus,” Newhouse said in a statement Tuesday. “I am committed to pursuing these necessary reforms and will continue to advocate for our nation’s farmers so long as I am in Congress.”