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A Republican Leader Takes Aim at Ocean Protection

Under the present system America's public seas 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.
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Upton Sinclair once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

The new chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Doc Hastings (R. WA), doesn't understand President Obama's new ocean policy. In the 2010 elections his largest campaign contributor was the oil and gas industry.

Hastings says that the national ocean policy is "an irrational zoning process" that "will harm the economy and cost jobs." It will, he claims, "place 'off-limits' signs on huge portions of our oceans and coasts, seriously curtailing... all types of energy development." To date the largest marine protected area 'off-limits' to extractive uses is in the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands and was created by an executive order issued under President George W. Bush in 2006.

Last July President Obama established a new (really first) U.S. ocean policy by Executive Order shortly after the BP wellhead was capped in the Gulf of Mexico. It is based on the recommendations of two blue ribbon ocean panels that reported in 2003 and 2004 (one appointed by President Bush, the other headed by Leon Panetta) and follows a long process of public hearings by an ocean-policy taskforce 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 CMSP idea is to take a more unified and mapped out approach to ocean management that, had it been applied earlier, would have required the regulatory oversight and full impact analysis that could have prevented the BP deepwater drilling disaster.

Under the nation's present system America's public seas 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 (before taking charge of federal response to the BP blowout) defines ecosystem-based marine spatial planning as, "basically taking the notion of urban planning and putting it into the water column."

"Considering all the multiple uses -- energy production, fishing, shipping, recreation, etc. [an ocean policy] will reduce the overall risk to the environment," he claims, "because you're going to make much wiser choices rather than reacting to the first person who comes along and says, 'I want a license to do this out there.'"

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 of moving land, sand and water that will also cross numerous 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 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 has presently taken the lead on this).

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. Yet, our ocean activities represent a larger part of our economy than agriculture in terms of jobs and money generated. 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.

Doc Hastings has hinted he may hold hearings on the President's ocean policy and congressional hearings may in fact make sense. We need a wider dialogue about how to manage our last great commons and frontier in ways that continue to benefit us in the present while preserving the seas natural resiliency for future generations.

What we do not need are partisan-based attacks on all things Obama or a pre-determined demand for unrestricted access to our public seas based on the agenda of a single saltwater special interest such as the oil and gas industry.

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