Ocean Currents

Fighting for Healthy Fisheries in a Time of Economic Crisis

Opening the door to rollbacks and risks during COVID-19 is not the answer

Taylor Shellfish in Shelton,, WA
© Barbara Kinney/Ocean Conservancy

Last week, the President signed an Executive Order (EO) intended to promote the competitiveness and growth of the American seafood industry. Unfortunately, this EO falls short of this important goal. Instead, the EO is a distraction from the needs of our nation’s fishermen, who are currently experiencing unprecedented losses of revenue due to economic impacts from COVID-19. With restaurants, export markets and tourism significantly disrupted by closures and quarantines, commercial and for-hire charter businesses are struggling to make ends meet. Without rapid aid, our nation’s fishermen—particularly captains and crew from smaller operations, who are key to ensuring the delivery of healthy, sustainable fish protein to our citizens—could disappear from our coasts. Unfortunately, the EO misses the mark on identifying and addressing the most urgent issues facing fisheries and fishermen (and fishing communities) today.

The EO opens the door to the dismantling of our nation’s successful management of wild-capture fisheries. Under the conservation and management requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the United States has become a global model for how to manage fisheries well. Our system has made substantial progress in ending overfishing and rebuilding fisheries back to healthy levels while supporting fishing opportunities for commercial, recreational and subsistence and Tribal users. The foundation of our management system is using the best available science to determine what actions are necessary to ensure we leave abundant fish in the ocean for every generation to come.

As a result of this system, the U.S. has some of the healthiest, most abundant and economically valuable fisheries in the world.

Instead of asking fishery managers to focus on ways to identify and reduce the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on our fishing communities, this EO asks managers to hunt for opportunities for sweeping rollbacks to our successful fishery management system.

At the same time, the EO instead tries to pave the way for expanded finfish aquaculture in our nation’s waters, which has the potential to actually harm existing wild-capture fisheries.

Aquaculture, a valuable part of many coastal economies, is a complex issue; there is a whole spectrum of aquaculture activities (e.g. bivalve, seaweed, finfish and open ocean) that go from widely accepted and low-risk on one end to extremely high risk to ecosystem health on the other. The U.S. currently lacks a national framework for ocean-based fish farming, and a successful system must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of the scientific literature and a focus on strong environmental standards to protect our public trust resources from undue harm.

In order to do aquaculture well, we need a comprehensive and precautionary permitting system that explicitly and proactively safeguards against risks such as conflicts with current fishing activities and other ocean uses, effects on water quality and essential fish habitat, spread of disease, impacts of escaped farmed fish on wild populations and use of wild fish for feed. It also must provide the ability for coastal states (some of which have existing bans on finfish aquaculture) to opt-out, and to be grounded in early and robust stakeholder engagement and a comprehensive planning approach that prioritizes healthy ecosystems.

The President’s EO does none of these things.

Rather than focusing on trying to rush development of a new aquaculture industry in the longer term, this administration should be focused on the increasingly dire economic situation hammering our wild-capture fisheries right now. Federal efforts would be much better focused on getting the fishing industry the resources, aid and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to weather the current crisis.

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