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Looking for a Sea Change on World Oceans Day

Last year, I thought the BP oil disaster might serve as a wake-up call about the importance and vulnerability of our ocean, but instead, it seems many lessons learned have since been forgotten.
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Last year on World Oceans Day, our nation was facing the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Since then, the well has been capped, oil-covered wildlife have been scrubbed, and experts have told us how to prevent another offshore oil disaster. But the truth is, not much has changed.

The Gulf of Mexico is facing an ongoing human and environmental tragedy that didn't end when the well was capped. Oil is still washing ashore and showing up in fishermen's nets. Unusual numbers of dead dolphins and diseased fish continue to be found in the Gulf, and unanswered questions remain about the long-term health effects from exposure to oil and the dispersants used to combat it.

Last year, I thought the BP oil disaster might serve as a wake-up call about the importance and vulnerability of our ocean, but instead, it seems many lessons learned have since been forgotten -- prompting Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to declare that Congress seemed to have "amnesia" about the BP oil disaster as the House rushed to prioritize oil development and production over safety and environmental safeguards.

Concern over that approach goes double for drilling in the Arctic where the icy waters pose unique challenges to oil and gas operations, raising serious questions about oil spill response, containment, and search and rescue capabilities. I believe we need a long-term science and monitoring plan in place before making any new decisions about offshore drilling in the Arctic; we must forge a cautious and deliberate path forward.

Thankfully, the efforts to expedite oil production at the cost of safety haven't made it out of Congress so far, but neither have any other pieces of legislation that address drilling reform or the need for restoration in the Gulf of Mexico. The United States must continue to develop new energy sources, but we need to make responsible choices, coupled with sensible conservation measures and investments, that will ensure we are protecting people, the economy, and the environment in the process.

There are many opportunities for progress toward greater responsibility and fairness.

Thanks to the bipartisan group of senators who introduced the National Endowment for the Oceans Act, we could soon have a blueprint for investing in healthier oceans. The bill would take the common-sense step of directing a portion of the funds the government already gets from economic activities on our ocean toward keeping it clean and healthy.

With more funding, we can continue to make smart choices about how we manage our marine resources. Last summer, President Obama established a National Ocean Policy to create a big-picture framework to guide the planning process, empowering local governments and stakeholders to coordinate use of our ocean resources. And Congress still has the opportunity to reform how we manage oil and gas development in our ocean and ensure the Gulf is restored.

In many ways, what lies ahead for our ocean is still unknown. Warming water temperatures could be affecting ocean wildlife habitat and migration patterns in ways we are only starting to see. Ocean acidification, caused by increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in seawater, is changing the chemistry of the ocean -- making it more difficult for marine animals to create shells, which could impact the ocean's complex food web and result in mass extinctions.

Thinking about our challenges on World Oceans Day can make the work that remains seem overwhelming, but I try to focus on the power of an individual to make a difference, and I know from personal experience that it's possible.

Just last year, more than half a million individuals volunteered their time to participate in our 25th Annual International Coastal Cleanup, helping pick up trash at their local waterways. They also cataloged everything they found, helping us amass 25 years of marine debris data that can be used to influence manufacturers, legislators, and individuals like you and me.

From our personal actions to the laws that govern our seas, it's time to follow the science and improve the way we care for our ocean. And perhaps next year, we'll look back on World Oceans Day and really see a sea change.