Agricultural subsidies threatening our fish

Guest Columnist

  • Friday, October 3, 2008 3:46am
  • Opinion

Why do rich farmers get all the breaks and poor fishermen get the shaft? The president recently signed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 into law, increasing federal subsidies to farmers in the United States by at least $83 billion to well over $100 billion over the next 10 years, two-thirds of it going to the largest 10 percent of farmers. It was the biggest such handout in history, and it was an action by a president who came into office promoting free trade, not protectionism. Obviously, people need food and obviously, agriculture is critical to the economy.

But not a penny has been set aside to subsidize the fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest, and fish are food, too. They’re also the foundation of our long-term culture and identity, and they’re indicators of the overall health of everyone and everything that lives here. The fact of the matter is that the agriculture industry is the single largest polluter and water user there is in this state. So, even though the Farm Act did include several worthwhile conservation provisions, the case can easily be made that heavily subsidizing the industry leads to even greater degradation of fish habitat. The agriculture industry gets record subsidies. The fish industry gets a double whammy.

Why? In a word: politics.

No lobby is stronger than the agriculture lobby, in either Washington. No industry sways more votes and none is more self-serving. They like to have you think that the agriculture industry is made of small farmers who love to work in the dirt with their own two hands as they struggle to squeak by financially, personally trucking their annual crops to market. The fact is that most of the industry is owned by millionaire stockholders who treat the earth as a commodity, and whose interests are dominated by the bottom line for the next fiscal quarter.

The downside of this for John Q. Citizen is loss of control over everything from grocery prices to the enforcement of environmental regulations. That is what is being subsidized.

Fishermen don’t have such a powerful lobby, and most of us really do live hand to mouth. When the fisheries resource began to decline two decades ago, we cut back on our fishing effort by 90 percent. That benefited the public because it protected resources everyone needs to survive. Today, our industry is struggling to survive, and that is not in the public’s best interest. When we do harvest fish, as our ancestors have done for thousands of years, we can’t sell our catch at a decent price. Yet, there is more fish available on the market than ever before.

Why? In a word, farming. Fish farming, subsidized by other countries. That doesn’t mean the quality of the product is better. It’s far worse. Atlantic salmon have escaped from fish farms, gotten into our rivers and competed for the habitat with our native salmon. These Atlantics are so bad that even the seals and sea lions refuse to eat them. To get truly delicious, nutritious salmon, be sure it’s from our native runs.

To be sure there are native salmon to enjoy forever, insist on three things: 1) That the salmon served at the restaurants and markets you patronize are native, from our own waters; 2) That environmental- and water-use regulations needed to protect and restore salmon habitat are fully enforced; and 3) That both tribal and nontribal fishermen get the support and protection they need to get a fair price for their catch, and to restore salmon runs to harvestable levels.

Nisqually tribal elder Billy Frank Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and is a spokesman on natural resource-related issues for the treaty tribes in Western Washington.

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