December 17, 2019

Merkley, Wyden, Pacific Coast Members Announce Major Win for Trawlers in Year-End Spending Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, joined by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA), and U.S. Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR-4), Greg Walden (R-OR-2), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA-3), Kurt Schrader (D-OR-5), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR-1), and Jared Huffman (D-CA-2), today announced a major, bipartisan victory for West Coast trawlers in the 2020 spending bill that Congress is expected to pass this week.

The language proposed by Merkley and supported by the other West Coast Senators and Representatives would forgive more than $10 million in accrued loan interest that was forced onto the West Coast groundfishing fleet because of mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

“Today’s news is a huge victory for our coastal communities in Oregon and up and down the West Coast,” said Senator Merkley, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which negotiated the spending bills. “It was outrageous that the federal government forced family fishermen to foot the bill because of bureaucratic incompetence. This win will lift a huge burden off our trawlers’ backs, helping them keep their small businesses afloat and keep our coastal economies humming.”

“After years of uncertainty for our fishers, I’m glad we were able to secure some much-needed relief for Washington state’s groundfishing fleet. Our fisheries play a vital role in the Pacific Northwest, and this provision is an overdue correction by Congress to lift an unnecessary burden off of our trawlers who do so much to support our culture, economy and communities,” said Senator Murray, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

 “I’m glad this issue for West Coast fishermen will finally be resolved. Groundfish fishermen shouldn’t be held responsible for interest accrued on a disaster loan before the federal government had a repayment plan in place. Removing the unfair interest charges will go a long way toward helping these fishermen rebuild and flourish,” said Senator Feinstein.

“Oregonians working on trawlers along the coast can now enter the new year without this senseless burden on the bottom line of their fishing operations,” said Senator Wyden. “Fishing on the Oregon Coast for a living is a key piece of our state’s economy that never should have been a victim of this bureaucratic bungling, and I am glad to have teamed up with fishermen and my congressional colleagues to get this problem fixed.”

“This is a victory for West Coast groundfish fishermen and fishing jobs in the Pacific Northwest,” said Senator Cantwell. “This legislation is an important step to ensure year-round economic activity and stability for rural fishing communities.”

“For years, Oregon’s groundfish vessels have been subject to a heavy financial loan burden, caused solely by government ineptitude. Groundfish fisheries are a vital part of Oregon’s coastal economy that need support, not red tape, from Washington. I’m proud to have helped right this ridiculous wrong and ease the financial burden on our region’s fishermen. I will be vigilant to ensure the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) follows through with Congress’s decision and does not short-change Oregonians,” said Rep. DeFazio.

“Commercial fishing is an important part of Oregon’s economy. It’s hard enough work without government failures making business harder. Government inaction has left the fishing industry with a costly and unnecessary burden. This legislation corrects that wrong and I was glad to work with my colleagues to get this long overdue fix into law,” said Rep. Walden.

“For the groundfish trawlers that provide jobs along our coast, today’s news is a relief and a victory. As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, I was pleased to help successfully advocate for providing relief to these employers,” said Rep. Herrera Beutler.

“Fisheries are an integral part of the Oregon Coast’s economy,” said Rep. Schrader. “When the federal government asked West coast fishermen to make a sacrifice for the future of their fisheries, they did. But when the government failed to implement the buyback program correctly, they turned their back on those same fishermen. Today we are righting those wrongs. Thank you to all of those who have been tireless advocates for West coast fishermen for so many years.”  

“In Northwest Oregon, the robust groundfish fishery helps provide year-round economic stability for our coastal communities,” said Rep. Bonamici. “But the industry is still working to recover from the fishery disaster in 2000. I’m proud to have worked with colleagues to address debt accrued by the Pacific Coast groundfish trawl industry as a result of delays in NMFS regulations to collect loan payments for the buyback programs. This was the not the fault of the industry, and we are pleased to stand with them in securing these long-overdue federal dollars. As Co-Chair of the House Oceans Caucus, I know how important our fisheries are to the blue economy.  I will keep advocating for strong, effective management to help more species like the West Coast groundfish recover.”

“The recovery of the West Coast groundfish fishery is an environmental success story,” said Rep. Huffman. “We all know how vital this industry is: sustainable fisheries are critical to the economic health of communities up and down California’s North Coast. I have been working to ease the fleet’s unnecessary financial burdens since I was first elected to Congress. Along with Appropriations Committee leaders like Nita Lowey and Rosa DeLauro, and our west coast congressional delegation, it is incredibly rewarding to be able to announce that the 2020 funding package will direct the Commerce Department to finally and fully forgive the unwarranted loan interest on the West Coast groundfish trawl fleet. This is an essential step to ensure a sustainable economic future for this fishery.”

“The West Coast congressional delegation has stepped up and righted a wrong that will have a huge economic benefit for Oregon trawl fishing businesses,” said Heather Mann, Director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative. “The west coast trawl rationalization program, which has been an environmental success, will now start realizing some real economic benefits as well, thanks to our champions in Congress.”

After the Secretary of Commerce declared the West Coast groundfish fishery an economic disaster in 2000, the NMFS provided a $36 million buyout loan to retire one-third of the fishing fleet to reduce overcapacity. 

After providing the loan, however, the NMFS inexplicably failed for nearly two years to implement a repayment mechanism and refused to allow the owners of the remaining vessels to start paying off the loan. 

As a result, $4 million in interest accrued before repayment was even permitted to start. That additional interest has grown over time; the industry today owes at least $10 million more than it would have if repayment had started immediately as intended. Over the years, this additional interest has created an albatross around the neck of an industry that is already facing significant challenges. 

The bipartisan members of Congress last week sent a letter advocating for the change.

The provision secured in today’s bill would forgive the interest resulting from the bureaucratic error, finally making West Coast trawlers whole and helping grow and revive coastal economies from Northern California all the way up to the Canadian border.

The bill is expected to be passed by both the House and Senate this week, and to be signed into law prior to December 20 to avert a government shutdown.