By James Wright, Senior Editor
Published on Saturday, March 10 2012
Three — count ‘em, three — U.S. senators attended the Seafood Jobs in America conference on Sunday at the International Boston Seafood Show, underscoring the importance of the seafood industry to the nation’s economy.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the session by illustrating how essential seafood is to the economy in her home state, and how the industry impacts other jobs directly and indirectly.
“The seafood industry within this country is all about jobs,” said Murkowski. “At this part point in time, given what our nation is facing with a still-struggling economy, everything in the Senate is focused on jobs, jobs, jobs.”
One issue that is particularly concerning to Alaska’s seafood industry is the potential loss of the J-1 visiting worker visa program that so many Alaska seafood processors rely on, she added. “Pulling the plug on the J-1 visa program, as the administration has proposed, could be quite damaging.”
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Mass.) were also in attendance. Brown, who has been extremely critical of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, said an uncertain regulatory climate is hampering the industry’s stability and growth.
Resource economist Philip Lansing, using figures from the NOAA Fisheries, reported that in 2009 there were more than 1 million U.S. jobs in seafood, an industry that generated $116 billion in sales. However, much of the product sold to U.S. consumers comes from overseas (about 85 percent), even though the United States exports about 6 billion pounds of seafood annually.
“The flip side of a 15 percent market share is an 85 percent market opportunity,” said Lansing, striking a note of optimism.
The conference panelists noted that there are many external pressures on traditional seafood jobs like harvesting and processing: With stiff competition from imported product, domestic catfish farmers are struggling, and the number of growers has roughly been halved since the 1990s; while Maine’s lobster catch was a record-high 104.7 million pounds last year, ex-vessel prices remained low and many lobstermen face enormous overhead costs; and mislabeled seafood and unpaid antidumping duties are eroding the profits of companies that play by the rules.
Bruce Schactler, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska; director of the Wrangell, Alaska-based National Seafood Marketing Coalition and moderator of the panel discussion, says the industry needs to look at itself differently for meaningful change to take hold.
“This is not a resource extraction business anymore, this is a food business,” said Schactler. “There’s a lot of room for extreme innovation.”