Big Tent Ideas

America Needs To Stop Relying On Countries Like China For Seafood Markets

Photos by Balefire, Nieuwland Photography/Shutterstock; Edits by Grae Stafford/DCNF

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Leo Thuman Contributor
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When Americans visit a supermarket and wander past the meat counter, they see this century’s equivalent of the fishmonger’s stall: the seafood department. Laden over crushed ice in glass cases sits an array of fish products — whole snapper or shrimp, maybe, but almost always pre-sliced filets in a bevy of hues. Oysters and clams complete the display. In the rare cases where stores divulge the provenance of seafood, placards will often list Thailand, China or South American countries.

Less frequently, however, will one see U.S-raised or caught seafood in such displays. This is disappointing to the patriot who wishes to ‘buy American.’ Unfortunately, statistics suggest that disappointment is to be expected: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch says that over 80% of seafood sold in the United States is sourced from abroad. NOAA Fisheries found that the U.S imported nearly two billion dollars in seafood products from China in 2019. The same year, the U.S imported five billion dollars’ worth of seafood from Southeast Asia, which alone nearly equals the value of our domestic catch in 2018. Vast quantities are also supplied by South and Central America.

Some organizations, particularly environmentalist ones, argue that the fishery balance is less skewed against the U.S. than the numbers suggest. They argue that a substantial amount of American seafood is exported for processing and reimported. But rather than minimizing the issue, it exposes a serious weakness: the U.S is unable to process a large amount of its seafood within its own borders. (RELATED: Environmentalist Issues Climate Scare Apology, Forbes Removes Article)

Our national discourse has recently questioned old presumptions that a large economy is necessarily a strong one, and that free trade makes every participant a winner. The former has been eliminated by the coronavirus pandemic, which exposed serious shortcomings in our manufacturing capabilities as America struggled to source protective equipment, test kits, and pharmaceuticals. The latter has been a reality for decades, something which any furloughed factory worker across the East Coast and Midwest could tell you. As Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio stated in a New York Times op-ed last April, we need a more resilient American economic policy.

There hasn’t been much discussion of “resilience” regarding the American seafood industry, but the same issue is present.

On one hand, serious changes in federal and state fishery policies have reduced the number of overfished stocks from nearly 100 in the ‘90s to 40 or fewer today. Even environmental groups applaud the progress America has made in healing its once suffering fisheries. The Environmental Defense Fund described our country as the “global leader in sustainable fisheries” in 2016.

On the other hand, working class fishermen like those in Gloucester, Massachusetts, likely don’t consider this progress, as draconian limits have been placed on their industry. Being crowned with laurels by environmental groups means nothing when traditional lifestyles and professions wane, seeing good-paying jobs slowly wither and die, forcing young people to either leave their communities or embrace regulation-imposed poverty.

Fishing communities and family fleets face a precarious future. So does our seafood trade deficit with China and the rest of the world. This calls for a comprehensive new concept: A MAGA agenda for the seafood industry, which can be enacted by both state and federal governments. (RELATED: Department Of The Interior Proposes Access To 2,300,000 Acres For Hunting And Fishing)

This policy needs to account for the progress made in fishery replenishment, slowly expanding fishing quotas while also ardently seeking innovative and new fishery management practices. While taking ecological sustainability into account, this agenda needs to keep in mind that no policy is truly sustainable if it sustains the environment at the expense of working-class coastal communities and traditional lifestyles. Additionally, this policy needs to encourage an expansion of aquaculture and farm fisheries as a means spare overfished stocks and encourage net growth in seafood production. Finally, it must encourage more domestic processing. If we can export cod to China for processing and import it back for consumption, we can send fish caught in the Gulf to Detroit for processing, and back to Louisiana again.

The Trump administration has made some progress pointing in the direction of a MAGA agenda in the fishing industry. Recently, it lifted unnecessary prohibitions on fishing in a protected area off the Maine Coast, delighting fishermen and angering environmentalists. Yet much work is left to be done in this vital part of the economy. The next four years will be as good a time as any to “Make American Fisheries Great Again” and decrease the U.S’s reliance on foreign countries to fulfill growing appetites for the fruits of the sea.

Leo Thuman is from Baltimore, Maryland. He is studying Political Science at Case Western Reserve University. Find him on Twitter @leo_thuman

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