Looming US government shutdown likely to drag down seafood sector

Impact of potential government shutdown on seafood sector unknown

As the United States barrels toward a shutdown of the federal government, commercial fisheries and the seafood industry are bracing for potential impacts.

The federal government’s fiscal year ends 30 September, but Congress has not passed the 2024 appropriations bills or voted on a continuing resolution that would keep the government open. Lawmakers are scrambling to find a solution that will keep the government fully operating into October, but success seems unlikely, according to Politico.

A government shutdown will see thousands of federal workers furloughed and a temporary pause on many government activities while agencies await approval of their funding and authorization. In previous shutdowns, U.S. agencies have retained skeleton crews of employees to continue “essential” and emergency operations, but that still has resulted in delays on the granting of fishing permits and other activity related to the seafood industry.

With the shutdown potentially just a few days away, NOAA has not provided any information on how its operations will be affected and what commercial fishermen should expect.

NOAA Fisheries declined to answer questions from SeafoodSource about how it is preparing for the looming shutdown, redirecting all questions to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The U.S.  Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA Fisheries, has not released its contingency staffing plans as of Thursday, 28 September.

“In the past, NOAA has maintained critical weather forecasting capabilities for public safety reasons,” National Fisheries Institute Spokesperson Gavin Gibbons told SeafoodSource. “It would have to be seen which fisheries offices might be maintained as essential personnel but it’s certainly likely there would be an impact.”

The last major government shutdown, which occurred in 2019, caused major headaches for the commercial fishing industry. Alaska’s pollock fleet was thrown into confusion over whether NOAA Fisheries would be able to provide the permits and observers needed to legally operate. On the East Coast, fishermen were unable to switch permits to go after different fish because there were no government officials to process their requests.

The 2019 shutdown ended on 28 January after five weeks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declined to say whether a government shutdown would impact its seafood inspection activities, redirecting all questions to the White House. However, the FDA’s public contingency staffing plans for a shutdown notes that “all vital FDA activities related to imminent threats to the safety of human life will also continue” as will “the review of import entries to determine potential risks to human health.”

The plan calls for 81 percent of FDA’s staffers to be retained in the event of a shutdown.

The U.S.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will furlough nearly half of its 2,106 employees if a shutdown happens, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s contingency staffing plans. That means the agency "will not be able to carry out any programmed inspections,” the department noted.

That would have a significant impact on OSHA’s effort to crack down on hazardous conditions among New England seafood processors and wholesaler operators. The agency implemented a local emphasis program targeting New England for comprehensive safety inspections this summer in response to injury and illness rates that are 2.5 times higher than the industry average as well as two fatalities that took place in 2019.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not released its contingency staffing plans.

In a 27 September statement, the Center for Science in the Public Interest warned that the shutdown could have major consequences for food inspections.

“While the officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who inspect our meat and poultry are considered “essential” and will remain on the job in processing facilities, the picture is more complicated at the Food and Drug Administration, which inspects everything from infant formula to fresh produce to peanut butter,” CSPI President Peter Lurie said. “'Essential' investigators will be able to track down new or ongoing outbreaks. But the proactive FDA inspections we depend on to prevent contamination in the first place will likely be halted or curtailed, which may mean the agency fails to detect a food safety problem that could cause illness, hospitalization, or death.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Orhan Cam


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