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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service
Op-Ed

Saving big blue

May 7, 2024

While Europe invests in the blue economy, our nation sails blind.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

I grew up shore fishing on the Pacific coast of Baja California. We lived off the coast for a week at a time, sleeping in bags on mats on the sand and cooking over a driftwood fire, in a place time had passed by, just desert and ocean.

We ate what we caught that day, corvina, perch, mussels and barnacles (actually very tasty), and the food we brought down in the Land Rover — a bag of rice, vegetables bought in a Mexican outdoor market along the way, gallon jugs of water, and a case of cheap red wine.

That taste for the bounty of the sea (and the wine) has stayed with me.

So, jumping to the broader topic of that bounty, Eurostat publishes numbers and analysis on a vast range of topics from energy import prices to retail trade, tourist nights and a bunch of stuff that is both arcane and fascinating.

Last week the Eurostat report that caught my eye was about farming the bounty of the sea.

Norway’s aquaculture business has gone up by 60% in roughly a decade, rising to 1.6 million tons of live weight per year. But the number that opens your eyes is the value of that catch. It has almost tripled during the same time frame, up to 11.5 billion dollars.

The trick I have learned about government research, lists, surveys and statistics is not to go too deep because you will get lost in the corridors and rooms of a bureaucratic maze. You have to pick out what’s interesting.

The interesting companion number was the one that went down as the value went up, like the other side of the teeter totter. 

All those fishermen from Cherbourg and Saint Malo going out into the English Channel and the North Sea and those navigating out from Bilbao and Barcelona into the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean — their catch is way down. The total wild catch in the EU has dropped by roughly one third since 2010.

Those trend lines actually point to a small zone of hope in a world that is burning up and blowing up at the same time.

Growing fish or seaweed or oysters is a lot easier on the climate than growing cattle. It helps slow down the rush to incinerate our planet. It creates work and wealth in coastal areas where the traditional fishermen are taking a hit, and it takes pressure off the ocean fish that are getting wiped out by trawlers and nearly invisible netting.

In the language of EU technocrats, “This sector can also help decarbonise the economy, fight climate change and mitigate its impact, and reduce pollution.”

Reading the Eurostat article, I also found something I expected: a plan, a plan to push money towards aquaculture and the fishermen as part of what they call “the blue economy.” A fund of 6 billion euros, roughly 6.5 billion dollars, is proposed for investment in aquaculture and for helping small-boat fishermen whose catch is sinking.

Here in the U.S., our own plan for promoting the blue economy stands like a stick figure next to the EU giant.

On our Courthouse News webpage — which was read by 1.6 million readers last month — we recently published a story by Benjamin Weiss about the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s plan for the blue economy.

The agency responsible for the oceans asked Congress for $266 million to save both fish and fishermen in the 2025 budget. Specifically for aquaculture research, the NOAA budget dedicates a miserly sum, $14 million.  The number seems to accept our country’s lack of competitive muscle in aquaculture production, where the U.S. ranks 18th among nations (but number 1 in beef production).

To give those numbers a current comparison, U.S. military aid to Israel runs at more than $3 billion per year.

It is overgenerous to call the national investment in aquaculture paltry. But there is also a telltale companion stat that makes it seem even more minuscule. According to the agency for the oceans and those living in them and off them. “Our national seafood trade deficit has grown to $17 billion.”

We import nearly 80% of our seafood, most of it from foreign aquaculture.

While the NOAA is providing next to nothing to support domestic aquaculture, the White House budget ignores the blue economy entirely. It names the oceans agency only in connection with climate research, tribal communities and offshore wind turbines.

That is all a great failure.

The tiny bit of the budget dedicated to saving the sea and the fishermen amounts to a missed chance to help Americans supply some of the huge demand for the sea’s bounty. It skips over a simple way to put a dent in climate warming. And it betrays both our future and our past, something understood by Christopher Columbus, the first European to walk onto our shores.

“And the sea will grant each man new hope.”

Categories / Environment, Op-Ed

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