Making Waves

5 Steps the 116th Congress Should Take to Restore the Health and Productivity of America's Oceans

Americans who depend on the ocean and treasure its beauty and abundance are counting on Congress to hold the Trump administration accountable for its harmful anti-ocean agenda, as well as to chart a more sustainable and prosperous course forward.

The sun rises over the Gulf of Mexico off the Texas coast. (Getty/Mabry Campbell)
The sun rises over the Gulf of Mexico off the Texas coast. (Getty/Mabry Campbell)

The 2018 elections sent a clear message: Americans value conservation. Voters elected representatives and senators who vowed to protect public lands and waters and stand against the Trump administration’s many attacks on the environment. Now, as the 116th Congress prepares to start work in January, it is time to put these principles into practice.

Protecting the ocean is both a moral imperative and economic common sense. Eighty-seven percent of Americans believe it is important to protect ocean areas that support whales, sharks, and at-risk sea life, according to polling commissioned by the Center for American Progress in September 2017. In addition, the ocean economy’s worth was estimated in 2015 at $320 billion annually and accounts for 1.8 percent of the total U.S. gross domestic product.

Many representatives and senators have already spoken out on the need for progressive ocean and climate policies. Here are five steps Congress can take to put these principles into practice.

1. Stop the Trump administration’s reckless offshore drilling plans

In July 2017, the Trump administration announced a new five-year oil and gas leasing plan that would open waters off every mainland coastal state in the United States to offshore oil and gas drilling. Since then, scores of coastal community leaders, nearly every governor from the East and West coasts, and dozens of members of Congress have announced their opposition to selling off the coast to fossil fuel corporations. This trend has continued through the midterms; as of publication, 13 newly elected representatives have already publicly opposed offshore drilling.

So far, it seems like no amount of state and local opposition can stop the Trump administration’s determination to sell off the oceans. Late last month, the administration took a major step toward allowing drilling off the East Coast by authorizing seismic testing for oil and gas exploration. This extraordinarily loud process will affect and threaten more than 30 species of marine mammals, of which six are endangered, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The new Congress should work to ban new offshore drilling in federal waters off the East and West coasts and in the Arctic Ocean. It should also protect the Gulf Coast by reinstating the safety measures implemented after the deadly 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, many of which were removed last year by the Trump administration.

2. Expose the Trump’s administration’s attacks on marine monuments and sustainable fisheries

The Trump administration has used coastal communities as a political pawn for its anti-conservation agenda while harming them through regressive trade policies. The so-called seafood trade deficit, in which the United States imports more seafood than it exports, has been used as an excuse by both Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Acting Administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Timothy Gallaudet to call for the reduction or elimination of marine monuments.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is actively harming the very fishermen it claims to want to help. The seafood trade is international and has been for decades, meaning fishing communities in the United States are experiencing repercussions from the president’s trade war with China. Such ill effects include U.S. fishermen being priced out of key global markets in lobster, rock crab, and Dungeness crab, resulting in millions of dollars in profit losses. The lobster situation in particular is illustrative of their financial problems. The 25 percent retaliatory tariff that China placed on American lobster has forced American lobstermen to sell their product at cheaper rates to Canadian distributors, who then turn a profit selling American lobster to Chinese buyers because they are able to avoid the tariff.

Congress has the power and the responsibility to represent communities whose economic well-being is harmed by ill-advised international trade decisions, and come January, the House will have the oversight capacity to do so. For example, the House committees on agriculture and natural resources could host a joint hearing exploring how the Trump administration’s trade tariffs have affected both farming and fishing communities in America. This could be a step toward building rural economic policies that work for all, while simultaneously supporting conservation on land and sea.

3. Act on climate change

From sea level rise and coral bleaching to fisheries impacts, climate change is among the direst threats to the U.S. coastal economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body on climate science, recently issued a grave report declaring that the window to stop irreversible worldwide climate damage is rapidly closing. Even the Trump administration recently released two studies detailing the great peril of a business-as-usual emissions scenario.

Fishermen are already seeing changes on the water that are causing their businesses to suffer. Shellfish growers in Maine, crab fishermen in California, and tarpon fishermen in Florida, among others, have spoken out about how warming waters are affecting their businesses. According to the IPCC, only 12 years remain to significantly reduce carbon emissions before the opportunity to prevent the most damaging effects of climate change passes. Reducing emissions, expanding renewable energies and industries, and examining comprehensive solutions to climate change should be some of Congress’ top priorities.

As Congress considers how to act on climate change, the ocean can be part of the solution. Coastal restoration of key ecosystems such as mangroves and wetlands can protect coastal communities from extreme weather and sea level rise as well as remove carbon from the atmosphere. Designation of marine protected areas can improve fisheries and ecosystem resilience to climate change effects such as marine heat waves, protecting coastal economies. And maintaining sustainable fisheries plays an important role in providing a healthy source of protein and ensuring food security in a changing climate.

4. Support sustainable fisheries

Congress should take action to support fishing communities by strengthening and safeguarding the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the primary law that regulates fishing in the United States. In recent years, the recreational fishing lobby has been more interested in profits from fishing gear, yachts, and motor sales than in sustainable fishing, and has lobbied to weaken the MSA. These special interest groups have promoted policies that disregard scientific standards, thus endangering the progress that the MSA has made toward restoring the health and productivity of America’s oceans.

The MSA is due to be reauthorized. Strengthening the bill’s existing provisions that guard against overfishing and mandate the recovery of depleted fish stocks is an essential task of any update. Congress should also tackle the profound challenge of climate change under current MSA management, enabling fishery management plans to better adapt to future conditions. While the United States now has a strong fisheries management system, problems from past overfishing have combined with climate change and habitat destruction to damage the nation’s fisheries. For example, despite years of effort, the New England cod fishery has not been rebuilt due to rapidly warming waters in the Gulf of Maine. Among other fisheries, such as the Alaskan red king crab, climate-related changes have led to concerns about overfishing, as target species cluster in the few cold areas left.

5. Bring back commonsense, place-based planning

On June 19, 2018, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that repealed most of the fundamental provisions in the National Ocean Policy (NOP), established by President Barack Obama in 2010. The original NOP was a comprehensive plan for coordinating management of complex ocean problems with a focus on maintaining and improving ocean health. By bringing federal agencies, states, tribes, and fishery management councils together, it allowed for collaborative management of ocean waters and coastal areas for multiple uses.

In sharp contrast, the Trump policy replaced the Obama administration’s focus on stewardship with an emphasis on economic development and security. It also dissolved the regional planning bodies, instead placing coordination responsibilities on the states, and removed the requirement to include Native American tribes in decision-making.

Without the NOP, it has become much more challenging to balance competing ocean uses—and these conflicts are becoming increasingly exacerbated. From clashes between fishermen and offshore wind developers to the growing demand for offshore aquaculture to the importance of protecting sensitive ecological areas, the need for comprehensive and inclusive marine spatial planning has never been clearer. Congress should recognize that good marine decision-making requires multilevel coordination; conduct oversight of the new Trump policy; and consider how to create a sustainable, collaborative, and regionally focused ocean management system in statute.


Americans who depend on the ocean and treasure its beauty and abundance are counting on Congress to ensure that the ocean can meet the growing demands placed upon it. The 116th Congress will have an unprecedented opportunity to hold the Trump administration accountable for its harmful anti-ocean agenda. It should seize this opportunity and chart a more sustainable and prosperous course forward.

Alexandra Carter is a research associate for Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Miriam Goldstein is the director of Ocean Policy at the Center.

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Alexandra Carter

Former Deputy Director, Ocean Policy

Miriam Goldstein

Former Senior Director for Conservation Policy; Senior Fellow