NOAA’s backward plan to sacrifice ocean health for blue economy

NOAA’s backward plan to sacrifice ocean health for blue economy
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When it comes to protecting our oceans, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is our last line of defense. And frankly, our oceans need defending right now.

As a former scientist for NOAA and former deputy director of NOAA Fisheries, I was pleased to hear the agency announce it would be conducting a series of “listening sessions” across the country to discuss important ocean priorities and challenges.


The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated over the past two years its disregard for the health of our oceans and the many coastal towns and businesses throughout the country that depend on them. 

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  • opening 90 percent of all S. waters to offshore oil and gas drilling while weakening drilling safety regulations
  • shrinking and allowing fishing in marine national monuments
  • undermining protections for marine mammals and endangered species
  • rolling back the National Ocean Policy that is intended to balance competing ocean activities

At the same time, this administration wants to ignore climate change, despite the toll it is already taking on marine life and coastal communities with higher ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels.

Perhaps the political leadership at NOAA has a different understanding of the word listening than I do. The dictionary and I consider “listen” to be a verb: to actively hear and give consideration, not just talk about pre-established topics as NOAA has done during the listening sessions held thus far.

From Alaska to Florida and places in between, NOAA is talking a lot about its plans for promoting the ocean-related “blue economy” with offshore aquaculture and energy development, but I wonder if Acting Administrator Timothy Gallaudet and his colleagues are listening to the concerns expressed by citizens throughout the country about the threats to the health of our oceans and that economy, such as toxic red tide algae blooms in Florida, rising sea levels in Alaska, and oil spills that could result from new drilling. 

Listening to NOAA leadership, it doesn’t seem like those in charge realize that the blue economy encompasses a diverse range of economic activities beyond offshore drilling and industrial fish farms. That’s curious, because the agency itself just released a survey showing that almost 49 million adults participated in ocean and coastal recreation and spent over $141 billion in ocean recreation-related goods and services annually. That spending supported more than 3.1 million jobs, $409 billion in business income, and $135 billion in household incomes. This is an economy that truly depends on healthy oceans and coasts, but one that is actually at risk if this administration continues on the course it has charted.

Further, while NOAA is talking about predicting severe weather events — and Hurricane Florence reminded us that NOAA is at the forefront of science with superb forecasts that provide critical, accurate warnings far in advance of these events — it is not clear whether NOAA leadership is listening to its own scientists and many others who are highlighting that these storms are being made worse by climate change, putting lives and livelihoods at greater risk. 

So, while the ”listening sessions” have thus far been more like presentations designed to focus on deregulation and offshore exploitation, Gallaudet still has time to change the agency’s approach. I urge NOAA to reassess its priorities and truly listen to the public about the serious, large-scale threats facing our oceans and the need for NOAA to stand up and do the hard work of protecting our oceans and coasts for future generations.

The blue economy is a vital driving force for coastal communities and the nation as a whole, but we cannot rely on it unless our oceans themselves are healthy. And that requires NOAA and the rest of this administration to address the real threats facing ocean health and coastal communities, including climate change, oil and gas drilling, overfishing, pollution, and loss of protected areas and species. NOAA’s current leadership must build upon the hard work of conservation management the agency has done for decades. Only then can Americans fully benefit from all aspects of the blue economy that healthy oceans can offer. 

Andrew A. Rosenberg is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Previously, he served as the northeast regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service at NOAA, where he negotiated recovery plans for New England and mid-Atlantic fishery resources, endangered species protections and habitat conservation programs. He later became deputy director of the service.