When it comes to unprecedented moments in seafood industry history, May’s executive order from President Donald Trump is certainly near the top.
It’s not uncommon for US presidents to use executive orders to unilaterally pursue policy objectives, but that doesn’t lessen the significance or the potential of Trump’s “Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth” decree as far as its impact on the seafood industry, particularly the US aquaculture sector.
While the order seeks to streamline fisheries regulations and promote more fair seafood trade, much of the value of this executive order will be determined by whether the United States evolves into the aquaculture powerhouse it has been threatening to become for nearly 30 years.
The roots of the current executive order’s aquaculture component can be traced back to 2005, when US Senate Commerce Committee Co-Chairmen Senators Ted Stevens of Alaska and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii introduced the National Offshore Aquaculture Act of 2005.
The bill, which became a template for future iterations of similar legislation, was developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and laid out a permitting process for offshore aquaculture development in US federal waters. It also encouraged investment and research in the sector.
The latest attempt to lift US aquaculture off the mat is a bill known as the “Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture" (AQUAA) Act, which has been crawling its way through Congress since being first introduced in 2018. It seeks to establish an Office of Marine Aquaculture within NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to streamline aquaculture facilities permits, as well as help fund research and extension services for several existing aquaculture priorities.
A similar version was re-introduced in March by Representatives Steven Palazzo of Mississippi and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Expectations are a Senate version of the measure could be introduced this session.
The likelihood of any bill’s passage this session is low. The coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming presidential election have members of Congress focused elsewhere.
But the signing of the president’s executive order is likely to pump new muscle into the bill when the 117 th Congress convenes next January. It is impossible to know now whether Trump will still be president or whether a Democrat will rule the White House, and what impact that might have on the executive order and the bill. President Trump is noted for his repeal of many Obama-era executive orders.
Nevertheless, the executive order and the AQUAA Act are now intertwined and backed by bi-partisan and new environmental NGO support, giving it perhaps the best chance such a bill will ever have of becoming law.
Success has many fathers
Pushing a piece of legislation through Congress is one thing but getting the ear and the attention of the president’s advisors is something entirely different. During his confirmation hearing in January 2017 Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross put a spotlight on the seafood industry, sending a signal that the White House was listening.
“Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter," he said during the hearing.
A year later, Ross amplified this message during a budget hearing, saying the United States should be careful when importing seafood from countries that don't have similar aquaculture standards. He also said the United States could reduce the seafood trade deficit by pushing for maximum sustainable catch from its own fisheries, a message he continues to deliver.
With congressional willingness and a new receptive administration at the helm, all that was needed was a concerted industry push. It came in December of 2017 when leading executives from Sysco, Red Lobster, High Liner, feed-giant Cargill, Pacific Seafood, Taylor Shellfish and others formed the group Stronger America Through Seafood (SATS).
The group contracted with lobbyist Margaret Henderson -- who was vice president of government relations at the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) from 2005 to 2010 -- to help mount a political charge to address US aquaculture development.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The Trump administration had released its 2018 -2022 strategic plan, which included a section on developing aquaculture in the United States.
A perfect storm was in the making, as the industry strengthened ties with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the President’s Office of Domestic Policy.
So where do we go from here?
While the executive order makes one mention of land-based fish farming in its definition of what aquaculture is, the proclamation is clearly focused on boosting offshore ventures. A bit ironic given the amount of money pouring into US land-based projects.
Nevertheless, the first step will be getting Congress to pass some version of the AQUAA Act and for the president to sign it.
With a November election hanging in the air, it is unknown whether Trump will still be president. If there is a change in the White House, it, too, is unclear whether the goals of the executive order will go forward with the new administration.
Nevertheless, the US aquaculture industry is closer than it has ever been to launching a new era of offshore fish farming, but yet it is still a long way away from this becoming a reality.
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