New Trump Executive Order Sells Off the Ocean and Fails Coastal Communities

Nearly 600 pounds of shrimp are pictured on a shrimp trawler off the coast of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, August 2019.

The United States is in the midst of a health and economic crisis. Yet instead of taking critical action to help the millions of suffering Americans, the Trump administration continues to push forward its anti-environmental agenda. Among its many harmful actions, the administration has relaxed enforcement of regulations for polluting facilities, replaced clean car standards with less fuel-efficient ones, declined its own Environmental Protection Agency scientists’ recommendations for better air quality standards during a respiratory disease pandemic, and undermined protections against toxic mercury pollution. And now, as coastal communities go bankrupt, the Trump administration has decided to focus on weakening successful fisheries management measures and selling off federal waters to big corporations with few safeguards.

On May 7, 2020, the administration issued a new executive order, ostensibly to “Promot[e] American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth.” However, instead of helping suffering coastal communities or the floundering American economy, it uses the pandemic as a pretext to advance the Trump administration’s corporate agenda, selling off the future of U.S. fisheries and oceans. This column outlines a few of the ways in which this executive order would harm the ocean environment and coastal communities.

Invites the rollback of key fisheries management measures

American fisheries management thrives because of its rigorous science-based approach and regulations—not in spite of them. Yet the Trump administration views these regulations, which have rebuilt stocks and ushered in the end of overfishing, as burdensome. Its new executive order solicits “recommended actions” from the regional fisheries management councils to “reduce burdens on domestic fishing” and to “increase production.”

But production is not the problem; demand is. Boats laden with fish and shellfish are being turned away by seafood buyers because with global supply chains in disarray and so many restaurants closed, there is no way to process, store, or sell more product. More than two-thirds of the money that Americans spend on seafood is spent at restaurants, and sales in that sector have plunged by more than 90 percent. In these dire circumstances, it is puzzling that the Trump administration would pull the councils’ attention—a finite resource given that they still must conduct their regular business—away from these immediate and complicated problems.

Additionally, the administration’s focus on simply increasing production ignores the hard-earned lessons of the past few decades. Returning to the days of collapsing stocks; hundreds of thousands of dead seabirds, turtles, and sharks; and flattened bottom habitat that can no longer support juvenile fish is not in anyone’s best interest.

This contradiction is particularly apparent in Hawaii, where fish prices have fallen so low that boats cannot afford to leave the dock. Yet immediately after the executive order was released, the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (WESPAC) made the disappointing decision to push to allow commercial fishing in the Pacific marine national monuments. With nowhere to sell the fish they are catching now, it seems likely that WESPAC’s letter—and the fisheries management section of President Donald Trump’s executive order—has much more to do with its long-standing push to allow industrial fishing in the few areas now protected from it and far less to do with aiding the communities devastated by COVID-19.

Sells off federal waters to industrial aquaculture while letting small-scale aquaculture go bankrupt

The bulk of the Trump administration’s new executive order sets up a structure for permitting of offshore aquaculture in federal waters with short timelines and few environmental safeguards. This has been a long-standing priority of the administration, but it is simply misleading to use COVID-19-related food insecurity and a mythical seafood trade deficit as justification to push for offshore fish farms that would not produce a single fish for two to three years at the earliest.

While aquaculture could be developed in a responsible way, the executive order seems intent on ensuring it is done with as little accountability as possible—with unrealistic permitting timelines and insufficient environmental safeguards for aquaculture stock sourcing, stock composition, and feed traceability. It makes little sense to strip the oceans of wild fish in order to feed farmed fish; and there are no safeguards here to prevent that, such as those within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Seafood Import Monitoring Program.

The federal government should not invest resources permitting a new industry while small businesses in that same industry go bankrupt. If the Trump administration truly wants to feed people with aquaculture, it should help the shellfish farmers who are struggling to stay in business due to the pandemic today. Furthermore, it should look to help all the fishermen and seafood producers across the country who have nowhere to sell their fish.

How to help coastal communities right now

President Trump’s executive order does not help coastal communities; yet they are desperately in need of immediate aid. Instead of selling off the ocean’s future for little to no benefit, the federal government should take the following actions.

  • Provide more direct relief: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $300 million in relief funding for the fishing industry, and the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act—which has not yet passed the Senate or become law—would add $100 million more. While this has been helpful, $300 million is simply not enough to support an industry with more than 1.5 million jobs and $200 billion in sales. This additional aid should go to commercial fishing and seafood businesses, particularly aquaculture operations; the recreational industry, such as charter boats and guides; and the small owner-operator businesses that have been hit hard by this crisis. The federal government should also directly purchase more seafood; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $70 million on New England groundfish, Alaskan pollock, and farmed catfish—out of a total of $470 million—so far, but much more can and should be done.
  • Invest in ocean and coastal habitat restoration: Restoring coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes, seagrass beds, and mangroves creates jobs and brings back habitat that serves as critical nursery grounds for many commercially important species, including salmon, striped bass, lobster, shrimp, and crabs. Investing in restoration, therefore, has the potential to benefit fish stocks and create future fisheries jobs.
  • Improve science-based management: The COVID-19 crisis has forced scientific cruises to be canceled and at-sea observer requirements to be waived. Though these measures are necessary, it is impossible to sustainably manage fisheries without the data necessary to make decisions. It is time to ramp up the investment and testing of electronic monitoring systems in order to ensure that fishermen, observers, and the ocean ecosystem are all kept safe.

Conclusion

The Trump administration is no friend of the ocean. Even before the coronavirus crisis, President Trump’s trade war cost fishermen millions, and his rollback of clean air regulations endangered the health and safety of seafood consumers. The poor practices laid out in this ill-conceived executive order will not help stricken communities, but they will cost everyone much more in the long run.

Recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic requires smart decisions that will help fishermen, aquaculture farmers, and small businesses get back on their feet. It also requires forward-thinking preparation for a future marked by climate change disruption. To truly support and preserve the country’s robust seafood industry—as this executive order claims to do—we must safeguard healthy fish stocks, support environmentally responsible aquaculture, and protect our irreplaceable ocean ecosystems.

Miriam Goldstein is the managing director for Energy and Environment and the director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alexandra Carter is a policy analyst for Ocean Policy at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Jean Flemma and Steve Bonitatibus for comments that improved this column.

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