Here in Whatcom County, we have 130 miles of shoreline — an asset that is inextricably linked to the success of our community, its history and our economy. But if we want to keep reaping the economic benefits of our working waterfronts long term, we need to ensure we have a strong and well-funded ocean agency to back us.
The maritime sector is alive and well in Whatcom County. From the commercial fishing industry to our shipyards, shipbuilders, ferries, tourism and all the critical service providers in between that make it happen — the industry supports more than 6,000 living wage jobs and accounts for 7% of our county’s workforce.
When you look at the state as a whole, the maritime industry drives an annual impact of $30 billion to the Washington economy — and the industry is growing. Consider the work being heralded from the governor’s office to increase the innovation and competitiveness of Washington’s maritime trades — the early stages of this work have already reached the shores of Bellingham.
These industries could not function, or grow, without the backbone aid of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA sits at the intersection of our industry and the environment, with critical data and research for both. All commercial vessels, naval ships, cruise lines and recreational boats depend on NOAA’s ocean and coastal intelligence to navigate safely and effectively — thanks to its nautical charting and real-time weather and climate information. The agency researches, protects and restores degraded marine habitats that support our dwindling fish populations, and helps recover threatened and endangered species.
NOAA conducts assessments on our fish stocks to ensure we have productive and sustainable fisheries for the future. And NOAA conducts environmental reviews and provides guidance that ensures we are advancing new industries, like port expansions, aquaculture and offshore wind responsibly.
It’s also important to note their role in helping nurture the next generation of mariners. While our industry is growing here in Washington, our workforce is rapidly aging. According to a Task Force report from the state, the average age of Washington’s maritime workforce is 54, with an impending mass retirement of almost one-third of the workforce in the next five to 10 years. Maritime jobs are well-paid, yet highly skilled jobs that require training and apprenticeship to build expertise. It will take time to prepare the next generation to fill the boots of those who are aging out.
NOAA supports training and apprenticeships across the country, including in Washington, providing hands-on experience for aspiring professionals — programs that can bring new bodies to the workforce here in Whatcom County.
As this year’s federal budget process takes on cuts to non-discretionary spending, we cannot backtrack on funding to NOAA. Anything less than fully funding NOAA would have ripple effects felt across the country, including here in Whatcom County.
We are fortunate to have strong leadership representing Bellingham in Washington, D.C. — Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Rep. Rick Larsen are all NOAA champions. I hope they continue this tradition, as we here in Bellingham hope to continue our maritime heritage, by pushing for full NOAA funding in the FY24 budget.
Todd Shuster is captain of Gato Verde, the first wind-electric hybrid charter boat on the West Coast. He is the past president of the Bellingham Community Boating Center and the current president of the Whatcom Working Waterfront Coalition Foundation Board of Directors.