Close to Home: Getting sustainable American seafood to your table

Whether we live on the coast or far inland, Californians have a love affair with the oceans. People travel for miles to enjoy coastal vacations, fishing trips or a walk on the beach. But one common feature of any trip to the shore is the opportunity to partake in an old tradition: enjoying delicious, nutritious seafood. In fact, Americans savor seafood in towns across the U.S., and the economic numbers prove it.

For those who make their living from the oceans by harvesting that seafood, the relationship with the sea runs deep. As the representative of commercial fishing and ocean conservation organizations, I work on behalf of the women and men whose families have ventured out to sea for generations. They depend on healthy oceans and abundant fisheries for their livelihoods, to put food on their own tables and to supply Americans with nutritious, sustainable catch. From Dungeness crab to salmon to rockfish and beyond, these fisheries resources depend on our sound stewardship in order to make it to the food supply.

Americans eat roughly 16 pounds of seafood on average each year, with much of that harvested by hardworking American fishermen. Many have heard of our nation’s “seafood deficit,” and this is partly true: domestic consumers have certainly been steered toward imported product, upwards of 85% overall. But we also export around 80% of what we catch. And much of what we import is American seafood processed overseas and shipped back home. The fact is, we need to reintroduce U.S. consumers to their own sustainable domestic seafood, lowering the carbon footprint of every bite and keeping our homegrown sustainable fisheries thriving.

Fortunately for us, U.S. fisheries management, with its foundation in sound science and accountability, is the world-class model we can use to achieve this goal. Once-overfished stocks have been rebuilding to healthy levels at an unprecedented rate. We’ve based the system on 10 pillars of sound governance, public participation and coastal community support for all sectors of the fishing economy - commercial, charter and recreational.

But with old and new challenges looming ahead, the time has come to revisit and update U.S. fisheries policy.

As a public trust resource, ocean fisheries belong to all of us, regardless of how deep our relationship runs. We must remain committed to supporting fishing communities through our management decisions to ensure future generations can share in the oceans’ bounty. We must engage all parts of the supply chain, from harvest to dinner plate, to ensure future policy decisions work for our oceans and fisheries and for all of us who depend on them.

On Saturday, Rep. Jared Huffman, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, kicked off a nationwide listening tour to engage Americans in a dialogue about the future of our oceans’ bounty. It has been many years since policymakers have truly reached across the aisle - and the country - to work on making our fisheries management system better.

It is easy to identify the many challenges to keeping fisheries healthy and productive. It is far more difficult to generate the will to address them. Oceans are warmer than they were, more acidified than they were, and unpredictable climate-related events are shaping the fate of fishing communities far more frequently than a few short decades ago. Fishermen are losing access to fish stocks, resulting in financial hardship and the loss of port infrastructure.

We must address these challenges with a renewed commitment to science-based resource management and sound marine stewardship. All sectors must share in conserving the resource. Crucial to that is meaningful legislation that strengthens conservation provisions in fisheries management while maintaining flexibility and ensuring that external threats like offshore oil drilling or bad water policies are equally protective of our public fisheries resources.

Huffman, D-San Rafael, is taking the right approach to ensure our seafood resources sustain us. Through a robust nationwide dialogue, Congress can develop comprehensive and forward-thinking marine resources policy that will work successfully for all who depend upon the long-term health of our fisheries and oceans. I look forward to working with Congress in the months to come to craft good policies that guarantee Californians, and all Americans, will continue to benefit from their bountiful fisheries resource.

Wherever you may live and whatever your relationship with the sea, an improved, equitable fisheries management system will mean more of our own seafood bounty makes it to your family now and into the future. That’s something we all have a stake in.

Noah Oppenheim is executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute for Fisheries Resources in San Francisco. He is co-chair of the Network Policy Council for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

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