As fishermen stay in port, Trump pushes fish farming

Pandemic and isolation have decimated markets for commercial fishing fleets. Trump sees an opportunity to boost farmed fish

Workers processing mussels at a Maine aquaculture facility. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Workers processing mussels at a Maine aquaculture facility. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Posted May 8, 2020 at 5:12pm

President Donald Trump’s executive order to accelerate the permitting process for farming fish in federal waters offshore has drawn support from large seafood companies and alarm from environmental groups that argued the White House is trying to boost a nascent industry during a public health emergency.

In the order issued Thursday, the president directed the administration to analyze the U.S. plan for aquaculture — the synthetic breeding, growing and harvesting of fish, shellfish and plants on land or in water, often within nets in the ocean — to strengthen the domestic aquaculture industry by speeding environmental impact statements and creating a federal task force on seafood imports and exports. 

[Fishing fleets say NOAA observers are too risky amid pandemic]

“We will create new opportunities for American products in the global marketplace, including through continued support of our commercial fisheries and promotion of domestic aquaculture,” Trump said in a statement that accompanied the order.

Trump issued it the same day as the Commerce Department announced it was distributing $300 million to the fishing industry, an element of the $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief legislation signed into law March 27.

“For generations, our coastal communities have taken great pride in delivering protein-rich seafood to dinner tables across the country and enabling access to our world class recreational fisheries,” Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which falls within Commerce, said in a statement. “Together, we will work to distribute these funds as quickly as possible.”

The set of announcements came as the American fishing industry has been battered by the coronavirus. Fishermen are unsure how to plan their upcoming seasons and many, as their restaurant customers have closed shop and have been forced to dump their catch as buyers vanish.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., whose state is slated to get $14.8 million from the Commerce program, said the COVID-19 outbreak and restrictions that followed have “devastated” the state’s fishing industry.

“This is welcomed funding that will help our fisheries address their losses and make it through these very challenging times,” Cassidy said. “More needs to be done, but this is a great start.”

'Slap in the face'

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., called the funding a “slap in the face,” saying his state did not get its proportional share

”How is it possible for Louisiana, one of the top fishing states in the nation, to only receive this much while other states with a fraction of a fishing industry get more money?” said Graves, adding that he requested the House Natural Resources Committee begin an investigation into how the money was allocated.

Cassidy and a bipartisan group of 24 other senators from coastal states sent a letter dated Wednesday to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., requesting $4 billion from federal agencies to support the fishing business.

For the next coronavirus relief legislation, they called for $3 billion to go to the Agriculture Department to buy seafood products and another $1 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to distribute through regional commissions. 

“The seafood industry is currently facing an unprecedented collapse in demand because of the novel coronavirus,” the letter says. “It has been reported that many of the nation’s fisheries have suffered sales declines as high as 95 percent.”

Fishermen nationwide told CQ Roll Call in a series of interviews in early April they expected that $300 million sum would be insufficient to address the industry’s economic needs. 

“The elimination of restaurants, the elimination of markets, the major depression of the demand, just makes it really difficult to figure out what to do next,” Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, said in an interview.

Distribution

The agency said it would allocate the money through its fisheries division, which would then distribute it to fishermen and businesses tied to the fishing industry in states, territories and tribes.

Alaska, the No. 1 fishing state in the country, and Washington would get the most —$50 million apiece. 

Jasmine Blackwell, a spokeswoman for NOAA, did not answer why distribution of the $300 million has been delayed since late March.

Some officials within the fishing industry praised Trump’s order as a way to expand the U.S. aquaculture business offshore. 

“Now is the time to embrace new opportunities for American workers and American consumers,” said Sean O’Scannlain, president of CEO of Fortune International, a seafood processor in the Midwest.

Bill DiMento, president of Stronger America Through Seafood, an industry group with backing from Cargill, Red Lobster, Sysco and other larger seafood companies that is trying to expand U.S. aquaculture, said he supported the president’s announcement.

“Our country needs economic stimulus — not just in terms of immediate cash assistance, but also in the form of new job opportunities,” DiMento said in a statement. “Why not put Americans back to work in an emerging industry like aquaculture at a time when it is needed most? 

Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., introduced legislation (HR 6191) in March to support the growth of the aquaculture business domestically.

Trump’s order does not help people who work as fishermen and fisherwomen, focusing instead on fish farming, which is a far smaller industry, Hallie Templeton, an oceans campaigner with Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy organization, said in an interview. 

“This order does nothing for them,” Templeton said, adding that aquaculture is less regulated than traditional fishing. “There is no fishing season, there is no fishing quota.”

Fish farming on land is better understood than in the ocean, she said. “We’ve been building stuff on land forever,” Templeton added.

When farmed fish break loose from their ocean nets, their introduction into the wild can wreak havoc on the adjacent ecosystems.

After recent forays into aquaculture, Canada and Denmark have begun to retreat, Templeton said.

“Fishing escapes are commonplace,” she said, adding of the executive order: “All it does is cut what it says is red tape.”

NOAA has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator during the Trump administration, the longest period the role has sat vacant since the agency was established in 1970.

The president nominated Barry Myers, the CEO of AccuWeather, a private weather forecasting company, in 2017. Myers withdrew his nomination in November.