Administrators calling on industry to lobby Congress

Budgetary belt tightening at the White House could have far-reaching implications for the country’s seafood sector if Congress doesn’t act to take a key federal program off the chopping block.

Last week, the Washington Post revealed a Trump administration plan to eliminate all funding to Sea Grant, a $73 million program that works with 33 state universities to support coastal research, economic development and education.

The proposal is only one piece of a much larger effort to reduce the federal budget, with significant cuts proposed to a large number of other programs, as well. However, this one hit particularly close to home for many in the seafood and fishing industries, who depend on Sea Grant for a wide array of services.

Program administrators from coast to coast said they’d been blindsided by the news and planned to work with Congress to push back against the White House’s proposal. They also called on industry for support.

“We're going to be asking all those folks (who depend on our programs) to contact our congressional delegation,” Maryland Sea Grant spokesman Jeff Brainard said. “We hope that if people in other states do the same thing, Congress will make the right choice.”

Brainard added that Sea Grant seemed an odd target for cuts.

“We think we've shown that we're a very good investment of federal dollars,” he said. “There's not that many federally funded programs that can say that and back it up with numbers.”

Sea Grant is a highly leveraged program, with state and local governments contributing one dollar for every two the federal government invests.

“We're not a regulatory group,” Alaska Sea Grant director Paula Cullenberg said. “We are in the business of moving the industry forward.”

In a state like Alaska, where seafood employs more than 70,000 people and contributes $5.9 billion to the economy each year, this is a vitally important function.

Cullenberg’s staff supports the industry through research on stocks and management and by educating fishermen about business administration, health and safety.

“We're not a huge agency,” Cullenberg said. “There's 25 of us in the state, but I think we're a great return on investment.”

Nationally, Sea Grant produced $8.54 in economic impact for every dollar the federal government invested in 2015, according to NOAA, adding up to a total economic impact of $575 million.

That effect is felt from the Bering Sea all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium has been working to cultivate a new oyster aquaculture industry.

That industry didn’t exist five years ago, but today Alabama is home to some 13 oyster farms and two private oyster nurseries. The industry produced 800,000 oysters in 2015, with a wholesale value of nearly a half-million dollars.

“I don't think those farms will go away,” said LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, “but the question is, ‘Who will answer their research questions down the road if there's no program that provides that sort of funding?’”

Cullenberg, Swann and their fellow program directors were in Washington, D.C., in early March for their regular annual meeting. The proceedings took on a more ominous tone in light of the news. Still, Cullenberg said she was optimistic the cuts wouldn’t pass muster after conferring with members of the Alaskan delegation.

“The delegation has told us to not freak out about this,” she said, “that we're a long way from having a federal budget and that Congress, of course, has a huge amount of input and influence there.”

Swann was a bit more circumspect.

“What I've heard so far is that there's going to have to be a groundswell of support from all the people that we work for,” he said. “Are they willing to go to bat for us? We don't ask. We never ask for anything, and we're not really going to ask now, but they're going to have to decide whether we provide the sort of value that's worth continuing.”

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