Long splintered into small groups, commercial fishermen are putting together a national organization to promote their image and press their interests before Congress.
The Commercial Fishermen of America announced its formation this month in Seattle and hopes to be up and running by spring, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Their first step is launching a vision for the group and asking fishermen what they want from a national organization, said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Juneau-based Alaska Trollers Association.
Kelley, Grader and other fishing group leaders from the East Coast to Hawaii have considered the idea of forming a national group for years.
They launched their vision for the national fishermen's organization at Seattle's Fish Expo, which ran Nov. 16-18.
Though each of the nation's 23 coastal states contain fishermen in their ports, "there's not really a voice for their unified needs," such as dependable health care, Kelley said on Monday.
Until now, the only national group speaking for the fishing industry in Washington, D.C., has been the National Fisheries Institute, which represents seafood processors, restaurants and distributors, said Grader, from Sausalito, Calif.
"Their concerns are very different from those of the fishermen, in some instances 180 degrees apart," Grader said.
But fishermen as a group are not necessarily inclined to group-think.
"The one strength and weakness of our industry is that it is extremely independent... we have to put together something that will work," Kelley said.
National issues facing fishermen include reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act, the primary federal law governing fisheries management; health care and workers compensation, pollution, and protecting port facilities.
The David & Lucille Packard Foundation, a national leader in funding marine conservation programs, provided a $50,000 startup grant, Grader said.
"We've got regional organizations and local organizations, but we really lack a national voice," said Jeremy Brown, a salmon and albacore troller from Bellingham, Wash., serving on the organizing committee. "Given that politics is just becoming ever more omnipresent and unavoidable, we felt it was high time we got organized to represent the interests of all fishermen at a national level."
Brown said the common public perception of commercial fishermen is a cross between the movies "The Perfect Storm," and "Forrest Gump."
"What we want to focus on from the outset is to promote the notion of the professional fisherman and the quality food he provides to the consumer," Brown added.
Since 1990, annual commercial fisheries landings of all species in the U.S. have remained static at about 10 billion pounds worth about $3.6 billion, according to the web site of NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that overseas ocean fishing.
Traditional fisheries such as groundfish off the West Coast and cod off New England have seen dramatic cutbacks to try to halt population declines brought about by overfishing.
Aquaculture is competing with fishermen to provide fish such as salmon and shrimp.
Meanwhile, imports of edible fish were up nearly $1 billion to $11.1 billion from 2002 to 2003 as demand continues to increase.
Juneau Empire reporter Elizabeth Bluemink contributed to this story.