Consider the pollock.
It is the most voluminously caught fish in the United States, accounting for a quarter of everything Americans catch. As such it is the major bulwark against the United States’ multibillion-dollar seafood trade deficit — the second-largest deficit in our trade portfolio, after crude oil. And it is, today, the main component in the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, or the “fish delight,” as Donald Trump likes to call it.
Now consider the president’s budget for the people who make his preferred sandwich possible.
If Congress seriously entertains the White House’s suggestions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — a popular target for conservatives, who see it primarily as a source of pesky climate-change research — and the National Marine Fisheries Service it oversees will lose 17 percent of its funding. This despite Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s desire to “try to figure how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and perhaps even a net exporter.”
As the three of us consider this statement, a common wry fisherman’s response comes to our lips: Yeah, good luck with that, buddy.
Because of repeated sacrifices made by American fishermen working with NOAA over the past 40 years, the United States now has the most robust and well-managed wild fisheries in the world. Federal observers oversee 99 percent of the large trawlers fishing for pollock, ensuring that this largest of fisheries maintains an impeccable set of management tools.
But in spite of all of our success, only around 9 percent of the seafood available in American markets comes from American fishermen. In fact, the last traditional fishing communities in the United States are fighting for their very existence. Fair-trade local fishermen remain unable to compete in our domestic marketplace, which is overwhelmed and flooded with cheap, untraceable imported seafood.
More than half the imported seafood here comes from fish farms, mostly in Asian countries, where there is little regulation of food safety. The rest, which is wild, is often from illegal sources. Rates of seafood fraud and deceptive mislabeling in the domestic marketplace are soaring to unprecedented levels.
Which government agency is at the forefront of combating this fraud? NOAA. Any funding for NOAA programs that help consumers reconnect to clean, healthy, sustainable seafood swimming off our shores is funding that we cannot afford to lose. The costs of managing our wild fisheries will not disappear with budget cuts; instead, the financial burden for programs like federal at-sea monitoring will continue to shift onto the shoulders of the last remaining American fishermen.
And it’s not just wild American seafood that risks disaster. Aquaculture, the fastest-growing food sector in the world and one of the most promising new industries in the United States, will be crippled by President Trump’s budget cuts. The United States already ranks 17th in world aquaculture production, behind Myanmar. Yes, sad! Without NOAA, things would be even sadder.
Most Americans probably think NOAA focuses on the weather. It does, but it does much more. NOAA gave birth to domestic shellfish farming in the 1930s and continues to fund innovations like seaweed and land-based salmon farming, which has in turn opened up new horizons for unemployed fishermen and their children. In Rhode Island alone, oyster growers raked in more than $4.3 million and have swelled their ranks by over 20 percent. And if revival of the blue-collar economy is the goal, according to the World Bank, building a network of seaweed farms covering a piece of ocean less than 5 percent of American waters could generate up to 50 million new jobs globally.
The president’s budget also zeros out Sea Grant programs, which provide education and technical assistance for aquaculture and other ocean-based industries. In the last two years these programs generated $575 million in economic impact and created or sustained over 20,000 jobs.
For those who work at sea, economic opportunity is inextricably tied to environmental protection. An Environmental Protection Agency initiative to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, now on the chopping block, has been the catalyst for more than 500 new ocean farms in the Chesapeake Bay in the last five years.
Last, for everyday Americans who need fish for good nutrition, particularly school-age children, endangering the supply of clean, traceable, healthy American seafood risks our very future. It is estimated by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization that pregnant women who eat eight to 12 ounces of seafood per week bear children with better brains and eyes, and I.Q. scores 5.8 points higher than the children of mothers who did not eat the recommended amount of seafood.
Cutting NOAA’s budget is a bad idea, both for parents who want their children to realize their full potential and for a president who wants to keep eating his favorite sandwich. And if all that fails to convince, consider this: NOAA tracks storms and wave heights, allowing thousands of fishermen to work safely. Without adequate funding, many could find themselves literally lost at sea.
Correction: April 25, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of large pollock trawlers overseen by federal observers. It is 99 percent, not 80 percent.
Bren Smith is a kelp and shellfish farmer and the founder of Greenwave. Sean Barrett is a co-founder of Dock to Dish, an international network of community-supported fishery programs. Paul Greenberg is the author of “Four Fish” and the correspondent for the forthcoming “Frontline” special “The Fish on My Plate.”
Written by: Bren Smith, Sean Barrett, Paul Greenberg
Illustration by: Justin Renteria