U.S. Ocean Policy Takes a (Small) Step Forward

Earlier today, the National Ocean Council released a new Implementation Plan for the National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes. We asked our colleague Morgan Gopnik, formerly a senior advisor to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, to  summarize this new plan.

Today marks a momentous and long-awaited milestone for true ocean policy geeks: at noon the National Ocean Council released a draft Implementation Plan for the National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes! If this announcement makes you yawn, you are not alone. But wait! This new Plan could be truly significant for anyone who cares about ocean ecosystems and resources or coastal communities. Let me explain.

As most readers of Southern Fried Science probably know, the last decade has produced many depressing stories about declines in ocean health: overharvested fish stocks, waning biodiversity, “dead zones,” invasive species, oil spills, etc. It has also produced a number of studies and high-level Commission reports suggesting solutions to these problems, most notably the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century,” released in September 2004. (Full disclosure: I served as Senior Advisor to the Commission.)  The Blueprint provided lots of recommendations (212 in all) about controlling pollution, managing fisheries, protecting shorelines, and addressing other specific problems. But its major theme and most significant contribution was to emphasize the need to fundamentally change our approach to ocean management and governance.

Historically, the federal government has managed specific ocean activities (such as oil extraction, managed by the Department of the Interior) or problems (such as invasive species, managed by NOAA) as they emerge or come to the attention of Congress. There has never been an overarching body responsible for looking at how all these ocean activities and problems interact within a particular region, resulting in wasteful—and sometimes bizarre—overlaps and contradictions between agencies. (As a side note, compare this to our approach to public lands where we assign large areas to be managed by a single agency, such as the Forest Service or Park Service, which must then balance many competing activities within the designated area.) The Commission’s Blueprint devoted four chapters to this subject, recommending a more coordinated, region-wide approach for U.S. ocean management. Unfortunately, the report was released in an election year, with two wars underway, and little appetite for agency restructuring after the recent pain of creating the new Dept. of Homeland Security. It seemed that no real action would be taken.

Fast forward to June 2009, when President Obama, six months into his new Administration, issued a “Presidential Memo on a National Ocean Policy for the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes.”  The memo called for all ocean-related agencies to work together to provide the White House with recommendations for improving U.S. ocean policy. Within a year, the Task Force had held regional hearings, produced several draft documents, received extensive public comments, and released a final report that echoed many of the themes found in the 2004 Commission report: improve coordination across agencies and among federal, state, and local authorities; work within a regional, ecosystem-based framework; involve all stakeholders; and use integrated, marine spatial planning to bring it all together. Obama formalized the Task Force recommendations through an Executive Order in July 2010, creating the first ever U.S. National Ocean Policy, to be executed and coordinated by a National Ocean Council, and implemented via nine National Priority Objectives.

Six months of additional drafting and behind-the-scenes negotiation produced today’s release: a concrete implementation plan listing 50 actions the federal ocean agencies have committed to take, including details about the responsible agencies, timeframes for completion, and hundreds of specific milestones to be achieved along the way. This is huge!

And yet, for now, it’s still words on paper. (A lot of words: the new plan is 118 pages long, with no Executive Summary.) What’s more, we once again find ourselves in an election year, with huge political and economic issues on the agenda, and little public attention on ocean issues. The House of Representatives, particularly the Committee on Natural Resources, has made it clear that they intend to do everything in their power to block implementation of the new ocean policy, primarily by blocking funding for implementation. (In a hearing last Fall, the Committee Chair tarred the new policy with all the usual catchphrases: anti-American, big-government, anti-business, and job-killing, none of which is really relevant.)

If politics, money, leadership, and random fate cooperate, January 12, 2012 could prove to be a turning point for ocean policy in the United States. You heard it here first.