US SIMP for shrimp, catfish advocates to lose champion in Cochran

News   12/03/2018 - Nguyễn Trí Tín

The US lawmaker who is one of the biggest forces behind an effort to make imported shrimp comply with new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recordkeeping rules for imports is calling it quits. 

Mississippi Republican senator Thad Cochran, the 81-year-old chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and the longest current serving member of Congress, cited health issues on Monday in confirming that he will leave his seat, effective April 1.

He also noted his determination to help reach a long sought after conclusion in efforts to pass final budget legislation before he steps down. The latest continuing resolution, a stopgap spending measure for fiscal 2018, expires on March 23.

"I regret my health has become an ongoing challenge," Cochran said in a statement. "I intend to fulfill my responsibilities and commitments to the people of Mississippi and the Senate through the completion of the 2018 appropriations cycle, after which I will formally retire from the US Senate."

Cochran, who began his nearly 35-year stay in Congress in the House of Representatives, will be forever remembered as the domestic catfish industry’s best friend on Capitol Hill.

In 2008, while serving as one of the four principals in US Farm Bill negotiations, he dug in and refused to allow the legislation to go forward unless it included language that would transfer food safety inspection responsibilities for Siluriformes, a genus of fish that includes both domestic catfish and pangasius imported from Vietnam, from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Agriculture. The change, after numerous fights in Washington, is now being implemented by USDA, which is deemed to maintain more difficult inspection measures than FDA, and simultaneously is being challenged at the World Trade Organization by Vietnam as an unfair trade practice.

President Donald Trump has proposed zeroing out USDA's budget for catfish inspections as a cost-cutting measure, giving the responsibility back to FDA. Opponents suggest USDA's oversight of Siluriformes is less cost efficient as it is the only seafood safety-related responsibility maintained by the department.

More recently Cochran has been one of the major advocates for legislation that would force NOAA to require imported shrimp to comply with its new Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) that recently went into effect for multiple other species.

Cochran's stated intention of sticking around long enough to conclude budget negotiations is meaningful in that the SIMP for shrimp language is contained in Senate Bill 1662, legislation intended to fund the Commerce and Justice departments as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other science-related programs. The provision would give the Commerce Department, NOAA's parent agency, just 30 days after enactment to eliminate the exemption for shrimp.

A number of lawmakers from states bordering the Gulf of Mexico and others have recently shown their support for the measure.

Politically, Cochran’s announcement means Mississippi will have two Senate seats up for grabs in 2018. Republican governor Phil Bryant will appoint a replacement for Cochran to hold his position until a November special election, CNN explains. Whoever wins will then have to run again in 2020.

Mississippi’s other senator, who is facing a challenge in 2018, is Republican Roger Wicker, who recently introduced S. 1520, legislation that would update the Magnuson-Stevens Act with changes that favor recreational fishers and are opposed by the commercial fishing industry. The bill was recently passed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation by voice vote.