To date President Obama has not been seen as an environmental champion, punting on legislation to address fossil fuel fired climate change and willing to trade off endangered species and other eco-protections in budget negotiations with Republicans. One area he has taken an important new initiative however is in the oversight of the other 71 percent of our blue planet that’s saltwater, our ocean. And now we have a chance to weigh in.
The President’s recently created National Ocean Council (NOC) is in the midst of a series of listening sessions being held around the country on the new “National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts and Great lakes,” and on nine strategic action plans its outlined to implement better oversight of our public waters through regional initiatives already under way. Some listening sessions have already taken place in Alaska, Illinois, Florida and Hawaii. Six others are scheduled over the next few weeks including:
- June 27, Exeter, NH, Exeter High School
- June 27, Galveston, TX, Galveston Convention Center
- June 27, Ocean Shores, WA, Quinault Beach Resort and Casino
- June 30, San Francisco Bay Area, CA, TBD
- June 30, West Long Branch, NJ, Monmouth University
- July 1, Portland, OR, Portland State University
First a little background.
Last July, just after the gushing BP oil well was finally sealed in the Gulf of Mexico, the president signed an executive order establishing a new (really first) U.S. ocean policy. It is based on the recommendations of two blue ribbon ocean commissions that reported in 2003 and 2004, one appointed by President Bush, the other headed by our next Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Both suggested that the ecological strains now taking place in our public seas poses a threat to our economy, security and environment and recommended a more unified approach to managing these waters.
The President’s decision to sign on for the seas and establish his National Ocean Council also followed a long process of public hearings by a taskforce he set up attended by thousands of citizen stakeholders (environmental supporters also staged ‘Wear Blue for the Ocean Day’ rallies in more than a dozen cities). The policy’s inelegantly titled operating principle is called, “ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning.”
The EBCMSP idea is to take a more unified and mapped out approach to ocean management that, had it been applied earlier, would have required the systemic oversight and full impact analysis that could have prevented the BP deepwater drilling disaster.
Under the nation’s present system America’s ocean waters are run by 24 different federal agencies operating under 140 laws with little or no coordination among them. The result has been decades of overfishing, pollution, coastal sprawl and beach closures.
Retired Admiral Thad Allen who was deeply involved in the ocean policy task force as Commandant of the Coast Guard sees the role of National Ocean Policy as, “basically taking the notion of urban planning and putting it into the water column.” He encouraged its immediate application at last month’s Blue Vision Summit in Washington D.C. Others at the Summit of over 400 ocean conservation leaders who called for its implementation included U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D RI), NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco and famed explorer and scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle. President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica was also given a “Peter Benchley Ocean Award,” during the Summit for carrying out similar protections in her nation.
An often-cited example of marine spatial planning is the Coast Guard’s decision to move the shipping lanes into Boston Harbor to avoid an area where endangered Right Whales feed. What the Coast Guard didn’t realize at the time was that the new shipping lanes were now overlapping an area where another agency was issuing a permit for an offshore liquid natural gas facility.
The complexity of Marine Spatial Planning may prove to be like urban planning in three dimensions and multiple jurisdictions — local, state, tribal and federal — hopefully without stepping on anyone’s flippers. Ultimately, if done correctly, it could involve cleaning up our coastal watersheds, greening our ports (as ‘America’s Port’ in Los Angeles is doing) and designating offshore waters not only for shipping but also energy, fishing, national defense, wildlife and wilderness in a dynamic and regionally responsive manner (Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California have presently taken the lead on this).
Opposition is mostly coming from the oil and gas industry who don’t care to see a policy that would balance extractive uses of our public seas against the benefits of long-term protection and restoration. They’ve formed the disingenuously named National Ocean Policy Coalition, run out of a lobbyists office in Washington D.C., whose aim is to dismantle the policy and muddy the waters.
What is clear is that most Americans today have not even begun to consider the challenges required to protect our seas whether through marine spatial planning or by use of other conservation and management tools under a national ocean policy. Yet, our ocean activities represent a larger part of our economy than agriculture in terms of jobs and money. Literally billions of dollars and million of jobs in transportation, trade, recreation and real estate depend on our ability to establish effective policies that promote healthy, abundant and secure waters, the kind of waters that also inspire and transform us.
The Blue Frontier Campaign that helped coordinate the recent Blue Vision Summit, is also happy to help anyone thinking of attending one of the upcoming listening sessions and linking them up with eco-coordinators who’ll be there, or anyone who would like to submit comments to the President’s Ocean Council online. You can also go to the National Ocean Council website to read about their Strategic Action Plans.
Photo Courtesy of Lindsey Kramer/USFWS
NOTE: This is a guest post from David Helvarg. Helvarg is an author and President of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a marine conservation and policy group. A long-time journalist turned seaweed rebel, his books include The War Against the Greens, Blue Frontier, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Rescue Warriors and Saved by the Sea.