Resources & Climate

Let’s Protect, Not Harm, America’s Marine Resources

Reflections on missed opportunities and a call to action to safeguard the environment and economic security of America's coastal communities
By Sally Yozell Author

As every fisherman knows, an engine needs oil so it won’t seize, torn fishing nets have to be mended, and boats require annual hauling and painting. Such care extends the life of a fishing vessel for decades, while deferred maintenance over time is costly if not dangerous. 

The ocean is no different. Thoughtful, sustainable management can add centuries  to the life of the sea, while overuse and neglect can bring once thriving fisheries to collapse, habitats to turn barren, and harm the economic and food security to communities who depend on its bounty.

Growing up in Massachusetts, where the “Sacred Cod” hangs proudly in the State House, it was a reminder of the economic importance of the iconic fish back to the 17th Century. My great-uncle, who owned a seafood business in Gloucester and who founded the National Fisheries Institute seventy-five years ago, would always remind us: we were reaping the harvest of the sea today, but we needed to take care of it for tomorrow. He’d note that everything has its limits.

This has certainly been the case with New England’s ground fish, including the cod. Headlines in the 1990s chronicled the collapse of these once-mighty stocks as a result of mismanagement and overfishing. Sadly, the cod population has not recovered. A recent story in the Boston Globe highlighted this plight: “Commercial fishing for Atlantic cod is limited by closures off the coast of New England… Cod were once the subject of one of the largest fisheries in the country, but it has collapsed after years of overfishing.” Furthermore, climate change is pushing the remaining cod to colder waters and consumers can still purchase cod—from Russia, Iceland, and Norway.

Fishermen have been plying the North Atlantic for centuries. Home to Georges Bank, Stellwagen Bank, and the Grand Bank, vast sea mounts and deep sea submarine canyons, the ocean geology stems from the ice age, which makes it one of the richest in terms of marine life. Teeming with phytoplankton and nutrients, which form the base of the aquatic food chain, life starts deep in the ocean canyons, moves upward and through the currents and upwellings, and bursts towards the banks to feed the animals and species creating a smorgasbord for fish, seals, whales, and other sea life. These unique attributes make the Northeast continental shelf one of the most productive shelf systems in the world.

But all of this took a hit last week when President Trump issued a Proclamation to end the protection of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. This area covers 5,000 square miles of seamounts and canyons, alive with red crab and ancient deep-sea corals. It provides the habitat and feeding ground for cod and countless other species of fish, the endangered right whale, sperm whales, as well as seals and porpoises. These pristine Underwater mountains and canyons were designated off limits to oil and gas drilling, mining, and industrial fishing in 2016 because they were recognized scientifically for their unique habitat and abundant species.

At a time when the U.S. seafood industry has been upended by the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some in the industry reporting domestic seafood demand down by more than 90 percent in April, the government should help the long-term viability of the industry, not hurt it. Actions are needed to level the playing for honest fisherfolk. And yet the Administration has chosen short-sighted measures that may disadvantage America’s fishing industry in the long run. In addition to creating international tariff wars hurting the sale of American fish overseas, the White House continues to miss opportunities to help the survival of our fisher men and women, including the need to combat illegally-harvested fish (known as Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated—IUU—fishing) from entering the United States.

Today it is estimated that the United States imports about 90% of its fish, and that roughly one-third of U.S. seafood imports are either illegally caught or mislabeled. The government should take bold steps to stop this practice of illegal goods, long before they are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants across the country.

The perpetrators of IUU fishing include a range of offenders: from foreign vessels fishing illegally in another nation’s waters to criminal networks that participate in a variety of illicit activities, including trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, as well as utilizing shell companies to launder money and slaves to carry out their operations, according to Stimson research.

Last month, the White House had a chance to help America’s fishing industry when they issued an Executive Order, “Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth.” Upon review, it offered few new ideas to help fishermen beyond what Congress and previous administrations had already authorized. Instead of advancing innovations to fight IUU fishing, the order reiterated existing policies recently passed by Congress, including the Maritime SAFE Act.

The Maritime SAFE Act codified several important actions aimed to eliminate IUU fishing and IUU-derived seafood imports. If the Administration wants to boost the competitiveness of U.S. fishers, they should work with Congress to prioritize funding to operationalize the Maritime SAFE Act’s whole-of-government strategy. Similarly, they should promote funding to enhance and expand the implementation of the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), a program operated by the National Marine Fisheries Service to stop IUU fish from coming into the U.S. The Administration could focus its efforts on supporting the development of a new software database with machine learning to enhance real-time monitoring, enforcement, and surveillance of IUU fish; expand capacity at NMFS to increase auditing and the enforcement of seafood imports; grow training programs with federal agencies and international partners to build compliance; and adopt mandatory electronic catch documentation throughout SIMP.

Finally, the Trump executive order calls on the fishing industry to produce a list of actions that would “reduce burdens on domestic fishing and increase production.” The Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council has already used the order to argue for eliminating the Pacific Marine Monuments, which serve a vital role in replenishing fish stocks. Mirroring the push to open up the Atlantic canyons and seamounts, such action will imperil the long-term sustainability of domestic stocks and fragile marine ecosystems. American fishers play a vital role in the economic security of coastal communities across the country, and their success relies on a sustainable, science-based management system to prevent overfishing. Instead of gutting protections and abandoning the spirit of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in the name of short-term gain, the Administration should work with Congress to support and expand initiatives to shore up fish stocks, combat IUU fishing, and take real actions to help the American fisher men and women and the fishing communities who need it most.

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