A New Wave of Advocates Arrives in Washington

At a recent fly-in event, Audubon volunteers challenge Congress to save seabirds.

Last month, fresh and seasoned advocates emerged empowered from the recent grassroots Fly-In hosted by the National Audubon Society at the Capitol Skyline Hotel in Washington, DC on April 10-12, 2019.

The three-day event in the nation’s capital immersed enthusiastic participants from the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, including Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, in advocacy trainings, policy seminars, bird walks, and Capitol Hill meetings with legislators to raise awareness of the threats facing seabirds.

Turning Passion into Political Action

“I came away from the National Audubon Society Fly-In on forage fish energized, empowered, and inspired by the ease and efficacy of individual and collective advocacy,” said Robin Ladouceur, board member of Menunkatuck Audubon.

Over the course of three days, more than 20 advocates learned to engage with members of Congress on the importance of protecting forage fish that seabirds rely on as a primary food source. They gained valuable advocacy and campaign skills, such as how to communicate policy change effectively and run meetings with members of Congress.  

Through a series of interactive workshops, the Fly-In organizers challenged participants to think strategically about building grassroots power. Guided writing and public speaking exercises helped them draw on personal stories, passion for birds, and an individual vision for change to prepare for meetings on the Hill.

Students Seize the Day

To ensure that the conference was accessible to everyone, Audubon provided scholarships for 16 attendees to travel to Washington, D.C. for the opportunity to advocate for seabirds. This opened the door for a strong representation of students from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bryn Mawr College, and Temple University.

“I think I could easily speak for everyone by saying it was such a wonderful learning experience,” said Tara Hohman, a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “We worked with amazing staff from Audubon’s D.C. Campaign crew and were trained on advocating and interacting with congressmen. We all have a better understanding of how much work the politics of advocating and introducing bills to the house is!”

Students and early-career professionals made up over half of the attendees who brought their own props to Hill meetings. Inspired by his chapter’s #HugAHerring campaign, Bob McGarry of Bucks County Audubon carried a giant stuffed herring to Congressman Fitzpatrick’s office. Other young and rising activists, like Ritvika Patodia from Pennsylvania, rallied behind colorful artwork, posters, and banners.

“[The Fly-In] made me realize how we as scientists need to be involved in advocacy,” said Megan Hoff, a member of the nation’s first Audubon campus chapter at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It was a fantastic experience to be on the Hill. After the first day, we all felt so empowered and inspired.”

Seabird Advocates Learn about Gaps in Forage Fish Protections

Since the 1950s, 70 percent of seabird populations, including puffins and petrels, have plummeted due to overfishing and climate change. Their main food supply is rapidly disappearing, making it harder to raise healthy chicks.

“The survival of seabird populations are linked to the abundance of forage fish,” said Karen Hyun, Vice President for Coastal Conservation, who kicked off the grassroots Fly-In. “Research shows that if we leave at least a third of target forage fish species in the water, seabirds have a fighting chance.”

The Fly-In educated participants about the need to strengthen our ocean ecosystem by protecting a key component of the marine food web –  forage fish. Seabirds are especially vulnerable, because they depend on a specialized diet of forage fish which include herring, shad, menhaden, anchovies, and sardines. Ecologically, these tiny fish are a big deal.

Scientists say that if the little fish disappear, then we can expect larger fish like tuna to vanish too.

Gaps in forage fish protections allow for commercial fishing trawlers (boats that drag football field-sized nets behind them) to take as much fish out of the ocean as they can. Currently, only three out of eight regional fishery management councils have made progress towards implementing new science-based measures.

Forage Fish Conservation Act Introduced in Congress

Keynote speakers Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL) spoke at the Fly-In to offer their support for forage fish legislation and formally announce a new bill, the Forage Fish Conservation Act (H.R. 2236).

“Declining fish stocks threaten both the larger marine ecosystem and the coastal economies that rely on them,” said Dingell. “This legislation addresses a key need by implementing robust, science-based management practices for forage fish to promote sustainable fisheries and safeguard our environmental heritage for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The legislation is the first of its kind ever introduced in Congress. “This is important and bipartisan sustainable legislation that will help protect our coastal health, environment and economy,” added Mast.

The bipartisan bill aims to:

  • Amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary federal law governing fisheries;
  • Set catch limits on forage fish;
  • Provide a national definition for forage fish; and
  • Account for seabirds’ needs in fishery management plans.

The bill is also cosponsored by Representatives Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Fred Upton (R-MI), Bill Long (R-MO), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Janice Schakowsky (D-IL), Ed Case (D-HI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jared Huffman (D-CA).

Reflecting on Process, Supporters Recognize More Work Ahead

During the event, attendees reflected on their visit to Capitol Hill. A total of 9 meetings were held to educate representatives on the importance of saving seabirds and strengthening coastal economies and industries, such as fishing, and wildlife tourism.

“Audubon is here to be the wind beneath these members’ wings and support their growth as leaders. Many attendees met with a member of Congress for the first time today,” said Maddox Wolfe, Coastal Campaigns Manager – lead organizer behind the Audubon Grassroots Fly-in.

“Tomorrow, we’ll debrief with our activists, assess the successes and areas for improvement, and talk about what building our collective power looks like,” they added. “I’ll be guiding them through the campaign process as they take on more leadership roles back home. They’re a powerful group of individuals.”

While more work lies ahead to ensure Congress acts on the new forage fish bill, many feel determined to help Audubon on this effort. Those who spoke with Wolfe said they felt the conference gave them confidence to take on new challenges ahead.

“This trip to D.C. opened up a whole world of possibilities for me,” said Julia Jones from New Hampshire.

Urge Your Member of Congress to Support H.R. 2236

You can support seabirds by taking action now. Send a letter to your members of Congress through our Action Center, urging them to protect seabirds. To learn more about the grassroots Fly-In or volunteer in this campaign, please visit: https://www.audubon.org/advocating-our-coasts or contact campaigns@audubon.org for more information.