Trump Is Selling Out Our Oceans Amidst a Crisis

In a new executive order, the Trump Administration is eyeing our oceans as its next target for rolling back protections in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis. By opening our offshore waters to industrial fish farming and seeking to cut regulations that keep our domestic fisheries afloat, this order is much more likely to harm U.S. fishermen than help them. Although the order rightly recognizes global illegal fishing as a practice that actually does harm U.S. fishermen, it doesn’t rise to the challenge to tackle this global threat.

Point Judith, Rhode Island

NOAA Fisheries

Just as communities are scrambling to contain COVID-19, and millions are losing jobs, this unprecedented health crisis is wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of America’s fishing communities. Shuttered restaurants and disrupted global supply chains mean that many fishermen are struggling to sell their catch. The long-term impacts of this hit are not certain right now, but we know that our U.S. fishing fleet, and the many folks in processing and distribution chains that help to get fresh fish from boat to plate, may find themselves in dire straits.

Fishing families and businesses are engines of our coastal economies, and they deserve our support right now. The recent allocation of $300 million in CARES Act funding from Congress is a start, and we hope that support for small businesses and sustainable fishing practices continues in order to help our fishermen weather this storm.

The Trump Administration’s new “Executive Order Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth,” on the other hand, is not any sort of solution. In a statement issued alongside the order, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross boasts that it puts American fishermen first and will secure America’s place as a seafood superpower by removing unnecessary regulations that restrict our seafood industry.

Here are three things the order actually does:

(1)   Seeks to ramp up an entirely new offshore industrial aquaculture without necessary safeguards

The order largely promotes an entirely new industry—offshore aquaculture—in our oceans. Industrial scale aquaculture has yielded massive coastal habitat loss, water pollution, and the spread of disease into wild populations around the globe. The order ignores these known problems, and also the many things we don’t know about how aquaculture, particularly the farming of predatory finfish species, affects our offshore marine environment. The order calls on the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a “nationwide permit” (the exact parameters of which remain unclear) for federal waters, instead of permits tailored to each facility and its unique environment. The order also calls on NOAA to streamline the environmental review process.

If we are to foster this nascent industry and allow it to develop in a sustainable manner, now is the time for additional scientific and engineering research, development of protections to for ecosystems and health, and consultation with existing ocean stakeholdersnot this kind of blanket approval for corporate interests.

In addition to the impacts noted above, use of smaller fish species as aquaculture feed could put our wild fish stocks at risk, not to mention that farmed fish could become a direct market competitor to U.S. wild-caught fisheries. And even seaweed farming done at great scale offshore could entangle marine wildlife and close off swaths of the ocean to other interested commercial and recreational users.

These are some of the reasons why hundreds of fishermen have spoken up to say that, in reality, expanding offshore aquaculture does anything but help them.  Nor, according to experts, is this type of order actually likely to reduce the U.S. seafood trade deficit, particularly under current market circumstances.

(2)   Aims to deregulate domestic fisheries management, again, instead of helping to effectively manage fisheries and see them through this crisis. 

The order kicks off a second round of regulatory review to “reduce burdens on domestic fishing.” This is an apparent revisiting of the theme underlying Trump’s so-called 2-for-1 executive order seeking to cut regulations, which in the fisheries context was broadly criticized for misunderstanding how U.S. fisheries operate.

In fact, we need the current framework of science-based regulations— used to open fishing seasons, distribute quotas, and make in-season adjustments to reflect what is happening out on the water—to keep our fisheries running. We have some of the best managed and successful fisheries in the world, and this is why America is a seafood superpower. Today, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, is the absolute wrong time to try to eliminate the safeguards that have kept our fisheries sustainable.   

(3)   Attempts to tackle the global threat of illegal fishing, but falls short.

On a positive note, the order rightly makes explicit the link between illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and protecting U.S. fishermen. As my colleague Sandy Aylesworth explains, IUU fishing thwarts effective fisheries management, causes profound ecosystem damage, and is linked to horrific human rights abuses. And by distorting the true costs of doing business, IUU fishing undercuts U.S. fishermen who fish fairly. The order acknowledges the need to boost training and technical assistance in specific seafood producing nations to combat IUU fishing and promote sustainable fisheries, yet does not offer concrete solutions or provide the resources that would be needed to accomplish these goals.

The order falls short of requiring much more significant and meaningful changes. For one, it misses a key opportunity to strengthen the United States’ Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which has the potential to block IUU-fished seafood from U.S. markets, and thus protect U.S. fishermen as well as consumers. Up to 32 percent of seafood imported into the U.S. is estimated to be illegally fished or unreported.

To rise to the global challenge of tackling IUU fishing and helping U.S. fishermen, we must harness the SIMP in a way that will meaningfully block illegal seafood imports.

We will be watching how this misguided seafood directive plays out on all of these fronts. Despite the welcome focus on combatting illegal fishing, the order resembles this Administration’s other efforts to roll back protections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We can’t allow the Administration to throw away years of smart, sustainable management and open the doors to corporate interests.

About the Authors

Molly Masterton

Staff Attorney, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.