2014 Walk The Hill

I wanted to bring everyone up to speed on our annual Walk the Hill events in Washington, D.C., last week.  We traveled to DC with our friends from the Gulf to educate our elected representatives and key agency staff in the hopes that they might help us with some of our most vexing issues.  (We are usually joined by growers from the PCSGA, but this year they elected to travel the following week.)

You can read the full text of our 2014 Legislative Agenda, but following is a summary of our top issues and speaking points. 

In our travels to the various offices, we introduce staffers to our industry, pointing out that we represent well over 1,000 small farms in rural coastal communities that collectively harvest over $123 million in sustainable, nutritious, farmed shellfish.  Shellfish aquaculture is an engine of green job growth that has enjoyed a doubling in oyster production on the East Coast in the past five years, supporting robust job growth in towns where many fishing-related jobs have been in a long decline. 

We met with 21 offices this year, a fraction of the 28 senators and hundreds of congressmen in coastal states that support shellfish aquaculture.  In deciding which offices to target I weigh factors such as who is on a critical committee and who is traveling with me from which states.  We always get a better reception when I am able to bring a constituent with me than if I just walk in alone.  I tend to target legislators who serve on appropriations or agriculture committees, and we focus our limited resources on offices that are willing to engage on our issues. 

Our top issue this year remains the unresolved trade embargo preventing us from selling live shellfish into the EU since 2009.  Access to these lucrative markets is increasingly important as we continue to increase our production.  Promises by the FDA to audit pristine growing areas in the EU have gone unfulfilled for two years, and we have little evidence that the FDA will help break this impasse.  We are asking our representatives to see if we cannot hitch our wagon to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.  These trade talks are supposed to resolve non-tariff trade barriers by eliminating regulatory barriers, and we received assurances from several offices that, should these talks be fruitful, we will be included.

We continue to push for restoration of the specialty crop designation under the Farm Bill that would allow us to compete for small research and marketing grants.  Legislation submitted by Rep. Courtney and Sen.r Gillibrand (HR 1590 and S 754, The Shellfish Marketing Assistance Fairness Act) would add farmed shellfish to the definition of specialty crops without asking for any new spending.  We narrowly missed passage of an amendment to the Farm Bill last summer that would have done this, and we continue to sign up co-sponsors for this simple measure.

We also pointed out the need for research funds in critical areas: Vibrio research, ocean acidification and aquaculture research in general (through NOAA Aquaculture and USDA’s Regional Aquaculture Centers). Several years of sequester cuts and continuing resolutions have stripped these funding lines of much needed funds, making it harder and harder to find funding to support work in these critical areas.

Lastly, we carried a message of support for the various clean-water initiatives such as the National Estuaries Program and the Chesapeake Bay Blueprint.  We pointed out that shellfish are a part of the solution to improving water quality and mitigating nutrient impacts, and we asked for assistance in implementing nutrient-credit trading to help us convey the message that shellfish are good for water quality.

At all these meetings, we were able to reinforce issues that the staff may have already been familiar with or, more importantly, educate them about less familiar ones.  Making these staff contacts and providing the educational messages are important for future interactions with elected officials.  This work is tedious and time-consuming, but I cannot stress enough the importance of this work.

We also hosted a congressional reception (with the Gulf Oyster Industry Council) for hundreds of staffers and agency personnel.  Ryan Croxton and Chef Bernie prepared an awesome grilled oyster dish, while the Hastings brothers manned one of the two raw bars, slinging oysters for the masses.  Special thanks to Island Creek Oyster Co., Atlantic Capes Fisheries and Rappahannock Oyster Co. for donating superb products.

I was joined by: board members Johnny Shockley, Karen Rivara and Dan Grosse; John Ewart, Mike Oesterling (Executive Director of the Shellfish Growers of Virginia), Jeff Auger (who works for Mook Seafarms in Maine) and Ryan Croxton from Rappahannock Oyster Co.  Be sure to thank these folks for their time and effort in representing your interests to our elected officials.  More importantly, make plans to attend next year’s Walk the Hill.

Now the real work begins, as I have dozens of follow-up calls and letters to write.  If you don’t follow up with these staffers every few months, they will quickly forget you were there and get overwhelmed by the next 15 issues that pop up on their desks each day.

— Bob Rheault