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We eat our own

How the American Dream folded in on itself.

The great seafood crash of 2020 was totally avoidable. But buoyed by nationalistic fervor, the president issued executive order No. 3474 – “Achieving Seafood Self Sufficiency” – immediately banning ALL seafood imports from every country, and prohibiting the exporting of any seafood caught or raised in the United States.

"For years, foreign companies have dumped inferior, sometimes fraudulent seafood products into the American marketplace, and Americans have suffered as a result,” the President tweeted in the aftermath of signing the order. “Closing our borders to foreign fish and keeping our great American fish in America will provide a much-needed economic boost to US fishing communities and all Americans.”

Within weeks, the availability of farmed salmon, shrimp and tuna shriveled to a dribble and prices soared for all seafood.

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The president’s man at the Department of Commerce had been championing US seafood independence in the press for some time, saying repeatedly: “Given the enormity of our coastlines, given the enormity of our freshwater resources, I would like to try to figure out how we can become much more self-sufficient in fishing and free ourselves from imports from inferior countries.”

He laid out his argument with a few simple facts: US commercial fishermen produce 4.3 million metric tons of seafood annually. Add in another 284,000 metric tons in aquaculture production. Annual imports, meanwhile, were 2.6 million metric tons.

“So, it is really quite simple,” the commerce secretary said. “We have more than enough seafood if we just feed Americans the fantastic fish we catch. We have no need to import seafood. American fish, American jobs. We eat our own."

The National Seafood Institute (NSI) praised the president for his executive action, saying, “The president should be commended for taking this simple step to ensure a fairer and more transparent policy process when it comes to our oceans.”

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The statement surprised many because the NSI traditionally sided with seafood importers, but the reason for the change of heart revealed itself a few weeks later when the president named the head of NSI to run the nation’s federal fisheries management agency, despite the fact he had no experience in fisheries management or education in marine-related issues.

And shortly after issuing his executive order, the president transformed the non-profit NSI into the new “American Seafood Bureau” (ASB), charged with verifying that all seafood sold in the United States was caught in US waters.

The administration’s simple approach to American seafood independence, however, ignored some less than simple truths about America’s seafood market.

The species that accounted for nearly 65 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States – salmon, shrimp, tuna and tilapia – accounted for more than half of all seafood imports, and the US seafood sector did not have the ability to produce anywhere near what was lost by banning the imports.

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In any given year, the United States imports more than 356,000 metric tons of salmon, mostly farmed. US fishermen produce around 254,000 metric tons annually the majority of which is wild salmon. US salmon farmers, by comparison, produce around 22,000 metric tons per year.

The shortfall sent consumer salmon prices soaring to $95 (€82.20) per pound, collapsing the market and leading to a disaster declaration for Alaska’s salmon industry.

Shrimp fared no better. Before the great seafood crash, the US imported nearly 665,000 metric tons of shrimp. Meanwhile, the US shrimp industry produced around 122,000 metric tons. Similar to salmon, shrimp prices soared to $120 (€103.90) per pound and the market collapsed.

The same story repeated itself across nearly every seafood sold in America. Within a month of the executive order, seafood had disappeared from most grocery stores and private seafood shops. Except for high-end restaurants, virtually all seafood was removed from menus.

The only winner, if you can call it that, was the pollock fishing sector, but even it suffered greatly under the US seafood independence movement.

US fishermen landed 1.5 million metric tons of the whitefish, more than enough to supply the US market with all the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and fish fingers it could eat. But closed off from foreign markets the major pollock suppliers were forced to consolidate and US fisheries law was modified to remove restrictions on how much quota each company could own.

When the dust settled, the group of more than a handful of pollock supplies had consolidated to one company.

Consumers didn’t take long to turn their backs on seafood because of the high prices, diminishing availability and lack of variety. Sales dried up and seafood suppliers had nowhere to turn, most were driven out of business.

Television news reports were filled with scenes of mountains of rotted fish being burned or dumped out to sea. Seafood consumption hit a new low of 1.3 pounds per person, and an industry once considered a global leader in trade, seafood quality, safety and sustainability crashed and burned.

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