Gulf Senators Green Light Plan to Send 80% of BP Penalties to the States

by / Louisiana Seafood News on July 22, 2011

By Alice Bumgarner

Nine of the 10 U.S. senators representing Gulf Coast states have agreed on a plan to send the Gulf region up to 80 percent of all Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP in connection with the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Sen. Mary Landrieu with Harlon Pearce (center) and Mike Voisin in Washington representing the Louisiana seafood industry.

Called the “Restore the Gulf Coast Act of 2011,” the proposal was several months in the making and required intense negotiations among the states’ senators. Gulf-wide agreement was a significant hurdle to jump, though others remain.

Leaders of the Louisiana seafood board strongly support the bipartisan bill — co-sponsored by Louisiana senators Mary L. Landrieu and David Vitter — to send BP penalty money to the Gulf coast.

Learning from the cautionary tale of the Exxon Valdez spill, seafood-industry leaders know that recovery can take years, if not decades. That’s why leaders of the Louisiana seafood board have been pushing for a long-term approach to Gulf coast recovery — and the necessary funds to carry it out.

The Tipping Point for a Market Shift

Representing the industry, Harlon Pearce of Harlon’s LA Fish & Seafood, Mike Voisin of Motivatit Seafood and Ewell Smith of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to speak with all 10 Gulf-region U.S. senators about the benefits of using the Clean Water Act penalties to channel funds to the still-struggling Gulf.

For the Louisiana seafood board and its leadership, the bill represents the tipping point needed to carry out a bigger plan: moving Louisiana seafood out of the commodity market.

“Out of adversity always comes opportunity," says seafood board chairman Harlon Pearce. "Opportunity has presented itself in the form of this bill.”

“In order for the Gulf to get out of this downward spiral of pricing, we have to move into a higher marketplace, so we can reach quality-oriented customers both locally and globally,” says Harlon Pearce, who serves as chairman of the Louisiana seafood board.

The downward spiral began around 2001, when imported seafood first flooded the U.S. market, prompting a race among fishermen and processors to match lower and lower pricing.

“In order to compete in the global market, though, we need to have a product that’s certified, sustainable and traceable, and have all our educational components in place to guarantee customers of the world that they’re getting a quality product.”

A Push for More Speed and Safety

A portion of the penalty funds would go toward research. “That’s going to help fisheries in the Gulf maintain a better stock assessment,” says Pearce. “For example, of our fisheries, only 10 or 12 have adequate data right now. Seventy or 80 are data-inadequate.”

Doing a stock assessment has been a cumbersome process, explains Pearce, but it’s the only way to guarantee a sustainable fishery. For example, if you started a stock assessment today, in 2011, a scientist would have to rely on data from 2009, and the final management plan wouldn’t be ready until 2014.

“That doesn’t work,” Pearce says. “We need a more electronic, steady data stream so we can operate at the speed of business. These penalty fees — which could be $250 million to $500 million — would allow us to maintain better data and better manage our fisheries.”

The overall economic impact on the industry could be significant, if the penalty fines are as high as what some estimate — up to $21.1 billion.

Perhaps most importantly, a portion of the penalty fees would allow the Gulf to set up regulatory protocols into the future, so scientists could test Gulf species all the time, not solely after an oil spill.

Speaking as someone who does a brisk business selling seafood to chefs and restaurants, Pearce says, “We want a program that guarantees the world that the safest seafood in the world is from the Gulf.

“Out of adversity always comes opportunity. Opportunity has presented itself in the form of this bill.”

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