Building Back Better From Coast To Coast

Photo: The Environmental Defense Fund

By Eric Schwaab, Senior Vice President, Environmental Defense Fund

These are challenging times for our oceans and fisheries. Climate impacts, so evident along our coasts, in our forests, and on our farms, are even more disruptive to our oceans. Fish stocks are shifting at unprecedented rates and in unexpected ways. Fishermen are traveling farther to catch quotas, and their coastal homes and businesses are threatened by rising seas and more frequent and more punishing hurricanes.

Now, add a global pandemic that has caused the loss of life, disrupted supply chains, greatly challenged the restaurant industry, and dramatically cut tourism revenue in coastal communities.

But while these are tough times for our coastal communities, we have an unprecedented investment opportunity as we bring needed economic relief to coastal communities. This new administration and a new Congress can prioritize a fishing industry that is stronger, smarter and leads the way for stronger and more resilient coastal economies. While we work to reduce climate pollution and prevent further damage, we must also invest now in the places most in need, feeling the impacts already resulting from warming oceans.

The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to bring together fishermen, conservationists, local leaders and other businesses to advance solutions. Working together, we can chart a new course toward both economic and environmental sustainability. Here are three good places to start.

First, we have to adopt the latest technology to bring fishing into the 21st century. Fishing is one of America’s oldest and proudest professions. Yet in many ways, it is still stuck in the last century in terms of how we monitor where and how many fish are caught and how those fish get efficiently to market. The pandemic has elevated consumer interest in where their seafood originates, and the need to develop alternatives to human observers at sea and at the dock.

Bringing technology to fisheries management is underway, but the pace of change has been too slow. It’s time to scale this effort to every fishing boat in every port. Equipping every vessel with electronic monitoring capabilities coupled with fast satellite data transmission would greatly accelerate sustainable fishing while also reducing business costs and improving access to markets.

Second, it’s time to grow locally more of the seafood we eat and bring jobs back to America. The U.S. is among the world’s largest importers of seafood, and half of that imported product is farm-raised. We are missing out on good seafood jobs in our coastal communities and improved domestic seafood security. At the same time, we export environmental degradation to places that do not apply the same environmental safeguards we demand locally. There is growing bipartisan support for a national aquaculture policy that helps grow seafood and jobs here at home — and does so in ways that won’t harm the ocean.

There are environmental concerns associated with aquaculture. By designing a sustainable aquaculture policy that meets America’s highest environmental standards, we can create tens of thousands of good jobs here at home, increase consumption of healthy fish, and minimize environmental impact. Done right, as we have already demonstrated for wild-caught fisheries, we could set a shining example for the rest of the world in how to grow safe and sustainable seafood.

Finally, there is the laudable goal to protect 30% of America’s lands and ocean by 2030. Protecting 30% of the nation’s oceans is an important goal. It can also be a divisive one. But it does not have to be so.

Over the past 20 years, starting with former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, we created large ocean parks to preserve the most pristine places in the sea. We did so without decreasing catch. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that conservation leads to greater harvests and has spillover effects that benefit the overall health of the ocean and its ecosystems.

But this must be an inclusive process, bringing all communities with an interest in ocean health – especially the fishing industry and marginalized groups – into the process. Doing so will cement the many benefits protected areas can bring to enhancing biodiversity, creating resilience, and contributing to human well-being while minimizing any economic impacts.

Across the nation, we are faced with big challenges. Recovering from COVID and addressing climate change are at the top of the list. The economic and environmental aspects of these challenges are intertwined. Focusing on technology, domestic seafood supply, and ocean health will help coastal communities lead the way for our nation.

Eric Schwaab served as head of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and is currently Senior Vice President, Oceans with The Environmental Defense Fund.

Eric Schwaab Photo: The Environmental Defense Fund

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