Sullivan Presses for Improved Fishery Disaster Declaration and Relief Process

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing titled, “Fishery Failures: Improving the Disaster Declaration and Relief Process” to examine federal and stakeholder perspectives on the fishery disaster process and how those disasters impact local communities. The hearing also examined recent and pending disaster declarations and how the process for both declaration and relief could be improved.

Before asking his questions, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a member of the committee, referenced a decision made earlier in the day by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross who determined that a fishery resource disaster occurred in the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod and Chignik sockeye salmon fisheries in 2018. This announcement clears the way for Congress to appropriate funds in response. 

During the hearing, Sullivan had the opportunity to introduce two Alaska witnesses, Rachel Baker, Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Chris Oliver, Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Senator Sullivan asked both NOAA Assistant Administrator Oliver and ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Baker about how to make the process for fishery disaster relief more responsive, so that Alaska fishermen do not have to wait years to receive aid, as was the case with the recent 2016 Gulf of Alaska pink salmon disaster.

“We do need firmer guidelines,” Oliver said. “I think if we have clearer direction to people that are requesting determination as to what information we need to start that determination, that could save some time. If you put strict timelines on us [and] our process, that will force us to get our work done quicker.”

ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Baker reinforced much of Oliver’s answer, while highlighting the important role of research in improving the relief process. 

“We feel like [research] is a fundamental eligible use to help our ability to prevent those fishery disasters and commercial fishery failures in the future,” Baker said. “It’s really a component part to try to get to the root cause and help us establish fishery management measures that will help us avoid those disasters in the future.” 

Sullivan also addressed the status of the Pebble Mine draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) during the hearing: 

“I think for the Alaskans, it’s important, it’s critical as the permitting process moves forward that science, not politics, drives the federal government agency decision-making. I think Senator Cantwell alluded to that. I have certainly encouraged the federal agencies here to get out to Alaska to hear directly from the people in the state, including in Bristol Bay, which they did this summer. I’m sure you saw, but the EPA and the Department of the Interior recently submitted comments to the Corps’ draft EIS and many of their comments were highly critical of the draft EIS. The burden of proof is now on Pebble and the Corps to substantially address these concerns based on science as required by federal law. This is a high bar and, as I’ve repeatedly said, we can’t trade one resource for another in that region and that’s an important issue I just wanted to mention to our Alaska witnesses.”