The seafood industry is the third-largest economic driver in Alaska, and our top employer. Seafood harvested in Alaska’s waters accounts for more than 60 percent of the volume of all commercial fish caught in the U.S. and contributes 60,000 jobs and more than $5 billion to the Alaska economy. Our fishermen — the ultimate small businessmen — are also the top American exporters of seafood products. For all of these reasons, I like to call Alaska the superpower of seafood, which is one of the many reasons that I fought for a seat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over fisheries.
There is no doubt that the industry and our fishermen are facing challenges — a changing climate that impacts our oceans, harmful federal regulations that hamper the productivity of our fishermen, shifting markets, and trade policies that have impacted our fishermen. But we’re facing these challenges head on, and working with our fishermen, we’ve made significant progress in expanding markets, streamlining burdensome regulations, cleaning up our oceans, and strengthening coastal communities.
Let me start with expanding markets internationally, particularly with China — Alaska’s largest trading partner. I’ve long supported an approach to stop China’s decades-long cheating, stealing, and non-reciprocal, unfair trading practices. But as trade disputes have impacted access to Chinese markets for Alaska fishermen, I’ve consistently promoted Alaska fisheries with the Trump administration, including on several occasions with the President, the secretaries of commerce and agriculture, and the U.S. trade representative. Together, we’ve worked to protect Alaska-sourced seafood from misguided U.S. retaliatory tariffs on imports from China. Because of our efforts, including testimony I offered before the U.S. International Trade Commission in August 2018, hundreds of millions of dollars of Alaska seafood was spared from these U.S.-imposed tariffs.
We’ve also been able to get significant aid for fishermen impacted by Chinese tariffs on their products. As a result of those efforts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has purchased more than $100 million of Alaska seafood products over the last few years. And the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has received millions more dollars to help create new markets. All of this, coupled with strong science and management, ensures that our commercial fishermen and processing companies continue to lead in sustainable seafood for markets around the world.
Most importantly, we’ve worked diligently to make sure that any new trade deal with China includes a component to purchase large amounts of seafood products. On January 15, I attended the White House signing ceremony of the first phase of a trade agreement with China. This agreement contained positive news for Alaska fishermen — a commitment by China to purchase Alaska seafood at levels significantly exceeding that country’s historic purchases. At this event, I had the opportunity to again highlight the importance of Alaska fishermen and seafood exports with the president and his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.
Further, because of a law I authored in 2016 mandating that fisheries and seafood exports be a part of the principal negotiating objectives for all future free-trade agreements that the United States enters into, the newly negotiated U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA), which recently passed the House and the Senate with strong bipartisan support, has a major focus on fisheries. The USMCA contains multiple articles on issues such as phasing out subsidies of foreign fleets, combatting illegal fishing, prohibitions on certain vessels and operations, and reducing and removing tariffs.
We’ve also worked to expand our domestic seafood market by closing a loophole that allowed Russian-caught pollock, processed in China and injected with phosphates, to be sent back to the United States for purchase by the National School Lunch Program. Not only was this bad for Alaska’s fishermen, the chemical-laden, twice-frozen fish served to our students turned a generation of kids in America off to seafood.
In the 2018 Farm Bill, a provision I authored fixed this problem. This change will greatly enhance the quality of food served to our kids at school and expand markets, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, for Alaska fishermen. It’s a win for our fishermen, our coastal communities, and our children in Alaska and throughout the country.
We’ve also worked to cut red tape that keeps money out of our fishermen’s pockets. An egregious example of a regulation that hurt our fishermen was the requirement that they get a permit from the EPA to hose down their decks after fishing, or else face a fine or a lawsuit from outside environmental groups. For 15 years, Congress had been trying to find a permanent fix for this absurd federal mandate. As a candidate for U.S. Senate, I vowed to fix it. Working with Alaska fishermen, we got rid of this ridiculous law for good with the passage of the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) in the Coast Guard bill, which I authored, last year.
Finally, none of these successes matter without clean, sustainable oceans and a new generation of fishermen with opportunities to enter the profession. From prioritizing funding for fisheries surveys, observers, and stock assessments, to ocean acidification research, to cleaning up our oceans and preventing marine debris disasters—we have been working diligently with our fishermen to address challenges and uncertainties that are emerging with a changing climate.
We’ve also had some success in making sure that Canada takes a more active role in the long overdue clean-up of the Tulsequah Chief Mine, which risks polluting Alaska waters. I have relentlessly raised this issue with senior Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet. Further, the Save Our Seas Act (SOS), a bill that I co-authored with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to help keep plastics out of our seas, was signed into law by the President in 2018. And, the U.S. Senate just unanimously passed SOS 2.0, another bill of mine which is the most comprehensive legislation to clean up our oceans to pass the Senate, ever. We’re hoping for swift action in the House so that the President can sign this historic legislation into law. The USMCA also contains an ocean debris provision which I pressed the Trump administration to include.
Finally, working closely with Alaska fishermen, in December, we were able to pass the Young Fishermen’s Development Act out of the Senate Commerce Committee, and we’re hoping that it will pass this year. This bill will bolster training opportunities and apprenticeship programs, harness the expertise of our experienced fishermen, and offer new grants to enable more young Alaska entrepreneurs to build rewarding careers as fishermen.
All of this is progress. We have challenges, no doubt. But I am optimistic about the future of fishing in Alaska, particularly when I meet the young Alaska fishermen who are working hard to carry on the proud history of commercial fishing in our state—one that creates a powerful bond between Alaska, our oceans and the sea life, and has helped turn Alaska into America’s superpower of seafood.
Senator Dan Sullivan serves on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.