PROVIDENCE, RI -- In an effort to give Rhode Island fishermen a voice and voting representation on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC), which manages some of the most important fish stocks for the state’s commercial fishing industry, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Representatives James Langevin and David Cicilline, today announced the reintroduction of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Fairness Act.  The legislation would add Rhode Island to the list of seven states with voting representation on the MAFMC, a regional management board that establishes fishery management rules for stocks primarily caught in federal waters adjacent to the mid-Atlantic coast.

The delegation also announced $2,967,000 in federal fisheries assistance funding provided by the Consolidated Appropriations Act.  This new federal funding goes to the state and will be administered by the Department of Environmental Management.  Eligible commercial fishing, processors, charter fishing, and other eligible seafood sector industry members who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic may apply for a share of the funds.

The delegation helped include this funding for Rhode Island as part of a $255 million allocation for fishermen nationwide in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), also known as the ‘coronabus’ law, that was signed in December.  Previously, the CARES Act provided $300 million to states to distribute to fisheries participants through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries allocations.  Nearly $3.3 million of that fishery disaster assistance went to help Rhode Island fishermen impacted by COVID-19.

While the COVID-19 relief funds are critical, the delegation stressed the need for a legislative fix giving Rhode Island fair representation on the MAFMC.

“This is an issue of fairness.  The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is a key decision making body that determines what happens off the coast of Rhode Island, but our state doesn’t have a seat or say right now.  Our fishermen deserve appropriate representation on this council.  Mid-Atlantic-regulated stocks now represent the majority of landings for Rhode Island commercial fishermen.  It is time that our state has formal representation on this council and this legislation will ensure they get it,” said Senator Reed, who has been pushing this issue since 2005.

“Climate change is warming the oceans, causing fish that were traditionally found in the mid-Atlantic to migrate northward to the waters off southern New England,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “Rhode Island fishermen should have a seat at the table when decisions are made about those fish stocks.  I’m glad to join Senator Reed in working to get our fishing industry fair representation on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.”

“This is ultimately an issue about the livelihoods of Rhode Island's fishermen,” said Congressman Langevin, who is introducing the companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. “The majority of Rhode Island landings are Mid-Atlantic regulated stocks, and our fishermen should not be shut out of that regulatory process. All we have to do is look at the addition of North Carolina to the MAFMC to know that there is a precedent for this. It is time that Rhode Island fishermen be included as well.”

“It is imperative that Rhode Island’s fishing industry have a seat at the table on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council,” said Congressman Cicilline. “Rhode Island accounts for more fish landings in waters managed by the MAFMC than almost any state in the Mid-Atlantic region, yet our fisheries still do not have a say in how a significant portion of their industry is managed. I am proud to join my colleagues in the Rhode Island delegation in introducing this commonsense legislation which will fix this oversight.”

The catch of Rhode Island commercial fishermen represents a significant percentage of commercial landings of the Mid-Atlantic fishery, and is greater than most of the states represented on the Council.

According to data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between 2015 and 2019, Rhode Island accounted for approximately a quarter of the commercial landings from stocks under MAFMC’s sole jurisdiction, both by weight and value. The significance of commercial landings from stocks managed by MAFMC is growing every year for Rhode Island, accounting for 58% of Rhode Island’s federally managed commercial fisheries landings in 2019.  In 2019 alone, Rhode Island landed over 5.5 million more pounds of squid than any other state on the East Coast.  But, Rhode Island does not have a formal say in how this species is managed because it does not have representation on the MAFMC.

Without representation on the MAFMC, Rhode Island cannot participate fully in development of fishery management plans for Mid-Atlantic stocks, many of which are crucial to the Rhode Island seafood economy.

The Rhode Island Fishermen Fairness Act would add two places for Rhode Island representation to the 21 member Council.  One seat would be appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under recommendations from Rhode Island’s Governor.  The second seat would be filled by Rhode Island’s principal state official with marine fishery management responsibility.  To accommodate these new members, the MAFMC would increase in size from 21 voting members to 23.

North Carolina was added to the MAFMC as part of the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996.  Like Rhode Island, a significant portion of North Carolina’s landed fish species were managed by the MAFMC, yet the state was not represented on the council.