Last May, 2020, President Trump announced an Executive Order on Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and EconomicGrowth (EO). The EO’s purpose was to remove outdated, burdensome regulations; strengthen efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU); improve environmental review efficiency; and, fast track federal aquaculture projects. On the cover, this sounds great. IUU is a very real issue, and this increased attention is good for our fisheries. Similarly, promoting American seafood and economic growth are undeniably good–especially during these trying times. Rolling back marine regulations and advocating for certain types of aquaculture, on the other hand, prove more controversial topics.
Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing
IUU is a global issue that accounts for 26 million tons of illegally-caught fish (10-23 billion dollars) and is often closely tied with other criminal activities. While IUU generally occurs on the high seas and in developing nations, US fisheries and industries are not immune from IUU. In the United States, fishermen who adhere to international and domestic laws are undermined by those who engage in this IUU fishing. Additionally, the conservation goals intended by these laws are eroded by IUU fishing. For example, a 2019 report to congress identified Mexico as one of the countries engaged in IUU fishing in US waters. Mexico-flagged fishing vessels have notoriously illegally fished in the Gulf of Mexico for the controversy-riddled red snapper.
IUU fishing is a serious problem that negatively affects American commercial fishermen and nullifies conservation measures. The calls to address IUU fishing in President Trump’s EO, therefore, are well-founded and will help American fishing and conservation interests.
Reducing Burdensome Regulations
The EO directs the Secretary of Commerce to identify “a prioritized list of recommended actions to reduce burdens on domestic fishing and to increase production within sustainable fisheries.” This is a muddied issue because many marine-related regulations seek to ensure sustainable use and conservation while balancing industry interests. Even though the EO indicates that any regulatory rollback “shall be consistent with the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act; the Endangered Species Act of 1973; the Marine Mammal Protection Act; and other applicable laws,” there are still reasons to worry.
The marine and fishing regulations of today are in place because of past abuses and irresponsible use of marine resources. This is why the directive to remove regulations, regardless of their burdensome effect on fisheries, will be met with some hesitance and/or flat out opposition. The Center for American Progress put it like this: “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.”
Streamlining US Aquaculture
As if President Trump’s EO wasn’t complicated enough, here comes aquaculture as the document’s premier subject. To make things simple, think of aquaculture as divided into finfish and non-finfish aquaculture. Finfish aquaculture has serious drawbacks and implications for wild fish populations and marine environments; whereas non-finfish aquaculture, generally, improves water quality and provides quality aquatic habitat.
The EO calls for “Removing Barriers to Aquaculture Permitting,” identifying “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas,” “Improving Regulatory Transparency for Aquaculture,” and “Updating the National Aquaculture Development Plan.” Simply put, there is a need for aquaculture in today’s world. Global populations are growing and, therefore, outpacing wild supplies of protein-rich seafood. So, offsetting that demand with aquaculture seems like a rational option. As alluded to, however, there are serious drawbacks to finfish aquaculture, which is why stringent regulations and environmental reviews are so important. There are several examples of catastrophic failures at finfish aquaculture operations that had devastating effects for the respective ecosystems. Yes, aquaculture will be needed to feed America and the world, but it must be implemented responsibly and under strict regulatory-regimes. This EO, unfortunately, seeks to streamline aquaculture projects and limit environmental reviews.
The American Saltwater Guides Association highlighted one of the most pressing concerns regarding finfish aquaculture: “First and foremost, we can not increase harvest of baitfish to feed large aquaculture operations. That would undermine the keystone of the ecosystem and have long lasting impacts on wild populations of fish.”
While the idea of increasing American competitiveness in the seafood industry is an undeniably positive goal, deregulation and streamlining possibly harmful industries is not the answer. The administration’s focus on IUU fishing is a step in the right direction for our fish populations and commercial fishermen. The rest of the EO, however, would likely lead to unsustainable practices for our marine resources and could come at the expense of recreational anglers.