US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross questions safety of seafood imports

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross addressed U.S. fisheries regulations and his concern about the quality of seafood imports with the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, 20 March, and he said he’s looking for NOAA Fisheries officials to work harder to reduce the country’s seafood trade deficit.

Ross testified Tuesday 20 March before the House Appropriation Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies to discuss the fiscal year 2019 Commerce budget. He did not mention fisheries-related spending in his opening remarks, but he fielded several questions about it from House members during the hearing

“It’s one of my pet peeves,” Ross said, when asked by U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Mississippi) what he planned to do to reduce the country’s seafood trade deficit. “I hate the idea that with all the water surrounding us and all the water inland that we have a trade deficit in fish. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on the fisheries management group at NOAA to try to deal with the situation.”

Estimates indicate the seafood trade deficit to be about USD 14 billion (EUR 11.4 billion) last year, as the U.S. imports more than 90 percent of the products consumed by the public. 

Ross said reducing the deficit needs a two-prong strategy. He said he wants to see the U.S. push for “maximum sustainable catch” from its fisheries while also placing a more critical eye on seafood produced from foreign farms.

“I think there’s some potential that some of the constraints we had on fresh catch here maybe need to be relaxed a little bit,” he said. “I think it’s easy to be a little bit overzealous and therefore hold down the production of fish. Second, I believe there are some inappropriate practices in some of the foreign countries in their aquaculture. It seems to me that we should be very careful about importing seafood from places that do not adhere to the same standards we would have for aquaculture here in the U.S.”

The FY2019 Commerce budget request includes USD 837.3 million (EUR 679.8 million) for NOAA Fisheries. That’s down nearly USD 8 million (EUR 6.5 million) from the FY2018 request of USD 845.1 million (EUR 686.3 million).

One of the programs again cut from the budget was the National Sea Grant Program, which oversees more than 30 programs tied to U.S. colleges. The programs act like agriculture cooperative extensions for marine industry and environmental research.

U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) urged Ross to reconsider the decision, saying the Sea Grant program has produced millions of dollars in economic impact and helped create thousands of jobs. She even invited Ross to tour a facility in her state.

Ross said he knows the Sea Grant program has been a success. However, providing grant funding to states for the program is currently a lower priority compared to funding NOAA’s primary operations, he said.

“This is one of the very difficult choices we made,” he said.


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