Time to follow through on NOAA’s marine conservation and the blue economy plan

California’s coastal waters are acidifying at double the pace of the rest of the world’s oceans

The modern marine conservation movement has its roots in landmark legislation passed almost 50 years ago. The Coastal Zone Management Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Clean Water Act were passed in 1972 to help protect, conserve, study and inspire public appreciation for our ocean, coasts and Great Lakes. Together with the Clean Air Act (1970), National Environmental Policy Act (1970), Endangered Species Act (1973) and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1976), this body of legislation has ensured that the U.S. ranks in the top tier globally for ocean sustainability

Policy regarding marine conservation has tended to focus on the need to balance the protection of marine natural resources with the economic returns from ocean activities such as large scale commercial fishing, offshore energy and shipping — as if the two areas are mutually exclusive. In fact, there are many instances of marine conservation that directly support the American “blue economy.” I initiated and oversaw the development of a Blue Economy Strategic Plan for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the end of the Trump Administration, and many of its elements are excellent examples of this point, including marine protected areas (MPAs), protected species protection, combatting marine debris and coral reef conservation.

MPAs preserve the natural resources of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes by restricting different types of uses. For regional and local economic contributions, NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary System (NMS) is the gold standard among other forms of MPAs. The process for sanctuary designation includes extensive input by local communities to create common-sense management methods that support both local businesses and the environment. A powerful example is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), which contributes a whopping $4.4 billion annually to the state’s economy through tourism and recreation. The FKNMS staff aggressively protect and restore the coral reef ecosystems on which those tourist dollars depend through a set of initiatives, programs, partnerships and plans.

Another example is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS) based in Alpena, Michigan. The waters of TBNMS in Lake Huron are home to over 100 historic shipwrecks that sanctuary staff research and conserve. Once a declining post-industrial town, Alpena has seen a remarkable economic upturn since the sanctuary was established in 2000. Thunder Bay has become a global destination for divers and maritime heritage enthusiasts, and every year visitors are attracted by events such as their international film festival, underwater robotics competition, and maritime festival. Local businesses have flourished as a result, and that encouraged NOAA to expand the coral reef sanctuary of the Flower Garden Banks off the Texas Coast and add new sanctuaries to the system at Mallows Bay on the Potomac River and in Wisconsin.

All of America’s National Marine Sanctuaries conduct protected species protection, which involves actions to conserve marine mammals, endangered species and their habitats. Humpback whales are an iconic protected species and educating the public about the need to protect them is a primary mission of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. Stellwagen Bank is the seasonal destination of a number of whale watching businesses, which one survey estimated to contribute over $250 million annually to the state in labor and sales. California, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii also enjoy the economic benefits of whale watching, which is only a small part of the growing U.S. ecotourism sector that relies on charismatic, protected marine life such as sea turtles, sea otters and seals.

Combatting marine debris is considered another conservation measure, partly to mitigate the harmful effects of plastic and discarded fishing gear on protected species, but also for the damage that such materials cause to ecosystems. The value of the ecosystem services enabled by clean, trash-free waters is difficult to measure, but a more widely understood aspect of preventing and removing marine debris regards tourism and recreation. In a remarkable study involving the East, West, Gulf and Great Lakes Coasts, NOAA found that regional economic losses due to doubling the trash on public beaches were hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Conversely, the same level of new revenue occurs when trash is removed from beaches because they are more attractive to visitors. These findings motivated NOAA and EPA to develop the first National Strategy to address marine litter in 2020.

Coral reef restoration is a fourth area of conservation that connects to the other three. Several National Marine Sanctuaries preserve coral reefs, which serve as habitat for protected species but also are threatened by marine debris. From either angle, coral reefs are hard to match, pumping $3.4 billion into the U.S. economy annually and providing such biodiversity that they are regarded as the “rainforests of the sea.” Armed with this information as the chair of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, I initiated and oversaw a NOAA strategy in 2020 to combat the deadly stony coral disease that is overtaking Florida’s reef tract, in addition to engaging in several international partnerships and events to inspire further action.

These and other elements of NOAA’s Blue Economy Strategic Plan are so significant that the document ranked in the top 10 of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s accomplishments for 2021 – the only entry for NOAA in the list. By continuing the implementation of this plan that was started in the last administration, NOAA can accomplish a win-win for both the economy and the environment as a key component of America’s post-pandemic recovery. 

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting and host of “The American Blue Economy Podcast.” He formerly served as the deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the assistant secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. Prior to NOAA, he served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy completing his career as the oceanographer of the Navy and director of the Navy’s Task Force Ocean.

Tags blue economy coastal economy Marine conservation NOAA Ocean Tim Gallaudet

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