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The oceans demand our attention

The latest battle over the future of America’s ocean frontier is being fought out in a seemingly unrelated bill in Congress.  Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) recently introduced his National Endowment for the Oceans rider to the Senate version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which funds the Army Corps of Engineers to work on dams, dredging and flood control. The Endowment would establish a permanent fund – based on offshore energy revenue – for scientific research and coastal restoration.

On the House side Tea Party Republican Rep. Bill Flores (Texas) has a rider to cancel out any funding that might allow the Army Corps to participate in the Obama administration’s National Ocean Policy, which he claims would empower the EPA to control the property of his drought-plagued constituents should any rain (generated by the ocean) land on their rooftops. 

{mosads}One rider represents a constructive addition and the other a paranoid partisan impediment to an ocean policy aimed at coordinating federal agencies in ways that could reduce conflict, redundancy and government waste, “putting urban planning in the water column,” in the words of former Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.  Allen, who coordinated federal disaster response to Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil blow out understands the importance of working together when responding to a disaster.  And like it or not, overfishing, pollution, coastal sprawl and climate change have created an ongoing disaster in our public seas.

Unfortunately progress towards a major reorganization of how we as a nation manage and benefit from our ocean continues to advance with all the deliberate speed of a sea hare (large marine snail).

In 2004 ocean conservationists held their first ‘Blue Vision Summit’ in Washington D.C.  It was there Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) called for a “Big Ocean Bill,” to incorporate many of the recommendations of the 2003 Pew Oceans Commission and 2004 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, the first blue ribbon panels to examine the state of America’s blue frontier in over three decades. During his presidency, George W. Bush established major marine reserves in the Pacific, but otherwise ignored his own federal commission’s recommendations along with those of the Pew group headed by future Secretary of Defense (now retired), Leon Panetta.  As a result America’s seas continue to be poorly managed by 24 different federal agencies taking a piecemeal approach to their oversight under 144 separate laws.

In the fall of 2008, Oregon State marine ecologist Dr. Jane Lubchenco met with then President-elect Obama in Chicago. There, he offered her the job of running The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and she suggested he promote an ocean policy based on the two commissions’ recommendations that he agreed to do.

By the time of the 2009 Blue Vision Summit it was clear Congress had become too polarized to pass major ocean reform legislation at the level of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the last century. Still, activists gathered there were thrilled to hear the new White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Nancy Sutley, announce plans for a new National Ocean Policy initiative by the Obama administration. This was followed by a series of six public hearings over the next year held in different parts of the country.  Ocean conservationists were able to mobilize thousands of people and 80 percent of public comments favored moving forward with a policy of ecosystem-based regional planning for ocean uses.

In July 2010, in the wake of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama finally signed the National Ocean Policy as an administrative directive. NOAA then held a series of additional hearings to engage stakeholders during which the oil and gas industry tried to apply the brakes (why support a level playing field when you already own the field).

In 2012, CEQ finally announced that nine regional planning bodies would be established to get the ocean policy implemented.

In 2013, during the 4th Blue Vision Summit activists held the largest Ocean Hill Day in history, a citizens lobby from 21 states that included over 100 meetings with Senators, House members and their staffs to advocate for getting the National Ocean Policy underway.

Still, today in early 2014, only four of the nine regional bodies have held meetings. In New England, participation by the states, tribal governments, fishermen, environmentalists and others have seen a strong launch. In the mid-Atlantic, it’s been more a case of different federal agencies talking to each other without much transparency or citizen participation. Initial meetings have also been held in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific, including Hawaii.

Although the course forward seems as slow as that sea hare, it’s also clear the public wants action for our ocean, coasts and the communities that depend on them. One can only hope (and insist) that by the end of the Obama presidency in 2016 we see some tangible improvements in how we treat our ocean through better coordination and planning among agencies and stakeholders.  Good models for this kind of sustainable ocean use already exist in states like California.

At that point we can raise our public seas to the level of public policy and begin to balance recreation, ports and shipping, wildlife protection, clean energy, coastal climate adaptation, food security, national security, exploration and science to sustain both our economy and the health of the ocean. 

It’s past time we get serious about moving forward on ocean policy and restoring the blue in our red, white and blue.


David Helvarg is an author and Executive Director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group.  His latest book is ‘The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea.’


Tags Bill Flores Sam Farr Sheldon Whitehouse

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