Trump is exploiting a crisis to industrialize our oceans
by Grace Chan, oceans & vessels team fellow
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The federal government continues to take full advantage of an unprecedented time for America to push forward controversial and shameful corporate agendas. As we face uncertainty in all aspects of life, from physical and mental health to the economic crisis and ongoing racial injustice occurring across the country, it is nothing less than unethical for the government to maintain any sort of ‘business as usual’ attitude toward legitimizing offshore aquaculture in the U.S. But what we have here is far worse than business as usual — it’s one handout after another to major corporations planning to pollute our oceans and line their pockets while the majority of Americans are concerned over other pressing issues.
Most of these new policies stand to benefit an emerging industry: offshore finfish aquaculture, which is the mass cultivation of finfish in the ocean in net pens, pods or cages. Offshore aquaculture is known to contaminate waters with pharmaceuticals, toxic chemicals, untreated waste, and disease. Farmed fish spills threaten the wild fish populations and natural ecosystems. Coastal businesses can be negatively impacted by the increase in pollution and ecological damage.
Since the national emergency for the coronavirus outbreak was declared on March 13, 2020, five dangerous, new policies have been pushed forward by the federal government: the AQUAA Act, three Executive Orders, and an EPA General Permit, all of which would severely undermine or eliminate protective regulations and cut corners in the permitting process for dangerous marine infrastructure, including offshore aquaculture facilities.
On March 12, 2020, the Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture (AQUAA) Act, H.R. 6191, was reintroduced in the House by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), after failing to advance in 2018, with U.S. Senators making moves toward reintroduction in the near future. The AQUAA Act would bring industrial fish farms to ocean waters with troubling rushed permitting, loose regulations, and without addressing the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.
Next came the Executive Order (EO) on Promoting American Seafood Competitiveness and Economic Growth on May 7, 2020. This EO slashes critical fishery regulations that are meant to protect wild fish stocks and their habitat, and creates a generalized nationwide permit broadly authorizing offshore aquaculture activities. The EO also mandates federal agencies to identify “Aquaculture Opportunity Areas” for commercial operations and rush to complete a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement within a very short timeframe. This is troubling as it is reminiscent of Trump’s previous failed efforts to identify ocean “neighborhoods” for oil and factory farm development, which did not address vital issues including protections for ocean ecosystems and needs of coastal communities. The EO also mandates the creation of a task force to explore trade reciprocity with other countries, which is code for exporting all the seafood to the highest bidder. Trump’s first move under this EO was to place one of the nation’s most controversial governors — former Maine Governor Paul LePage who has a history of racist remarks and policies — at the helm of the new task force. Considering this appointment was made the same week as the country leaned into protests for racial equity and justice after the brutal murder of George Floyd, the move was no less than aloof and crass (and unfortunately, exactly what the country has come to expect from the current administration).
Then came a draft EPA General Permit for New England, made available for public review on May 11, 2020. This would generalize regulations for industrial aquaculture facilities under a single permit for toxic discharge rather than require tailored permits and environmental reviews for individual operations across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
The cherries on top came in the form of two nearly back-to-back EOs. First, an Executive Order on Accelerating the Nation’s Economic Recovery from the COVID-19 Emergency by Expediting Infrastructure Investments and Other Activities, signed June 4, 2020. This EO mandates federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, to bypass environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, to expedite infrastructure projects in order to stimulate the economy. This will make it easier for any aquaculture project to obtain permits without proper oversight. The very next day, June 5, 2020, Trump issued his Proclamation on Modifying The Northeast Canyons And Seamounts Marine National Monument, which eliminates essential protections in the first and only marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
Trump continues to use the cover of the economic downturn, the coronavirus crisis and the massive protests for Black lives and racial justice to sneak through repeals of environmental regulations that he has long pushed to roll back. Rather than putting effort into expanding and streamlining the industrial fish farm industry, the federal government should focus on the American people. This starts with a loud and clear demand that the White House withdraw its appointment of Paul LePage from heading the recently formed seafood trade task force. We need proper officials in charge of crafting the country’s ocean policies so we can effectively move toward a truly sustainable and just seafood economy. An outwardly racist former governor simply won’t cut it.