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Ocean Policy Is A No-Brainer

November 1, 2012

“Dude, would it be too much to ask you humans to have a national ocean policy?”

It seems so obvious to me that humans (and the subset known as Americans) need to see and treat the oceans, the lands, and the atmosphere as integrated ecosystems. What you do in one place, affects life (either human or non-) and resources in another place. So when you make choices about commerce, recreation, energy, whatever, it makes sense to think through the ripples those choices send through the system.

So I am always caught by surprise when such an obvious reality turns out to be controversial. Take ocean policy. To his credit, Barack Obama saw the interconnectedness of things, and the confusing disconnnectedness of federal agencies and polices, and decided to create a national ocean policy that actually considers the implications for the oceans off the United States of the decisions made by the federal government.

Yet considering the borader implications of any single decision for the oceans as a whole is apparently a controversial idea. According to the Washington Post:

Conservative Republicans warn that the administration is determined to expand its regulatory reach and curb the extraction of valuable energy resources, while many Democrats, and their environmentalist allies, argue that the policy will keep the ocean healthy and reduce conflicts over its use.

The wrangling threatens to overshadow a fundamental issue — the country’s patchwork approach to managing offshore waters. Twenty-seven federal agencies, representing interests as diverse as farmers and shippers, have some role in governing the oceans. Obama’s July 2010 executive order set up a National Ocean Council, based at the White House, that is designed to reconcile the competing interests of different agencies and ocean users.

The policy is already having an impact. The council, for example, is trying to broker a compromise among six federal agencies over the fate of defunct offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational fishermen want the rigs, which attract fish, to stay, but some operators of commercial fishing trawlers consider them a hazard and want them removed.

The article goes on to detail debates over vessel speeds through national marine sanctuaries, the impact of wind farms on local fisheries, and river runoff. What is particularly striking to me is that all these debates are over competing human commercial interests. The impact on ocean health and ocean dwellers rarely seems to figure. So not only do you have controversy over the blindingly sensible idea of considering the broader impact of decisionmaking related to oceans. The idea doesn’t even really incorporate the basic health of the ecosystem (beyond what happens to commercial or sportfishing fish stocks) as a fundamental goal or interest.

Throw in the fact that the oceans really need international coordination and management, and this controversy over simply managing the oceans off our coasts in a sensible way makes you realize just how far we have to go to get where we need to be on global oceans policy. It’s not just about human interests (though it is in the largest sense, because we need a healthy planet and healthy oceans to thrive). Why is that controversial or so hard to see?

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 1, 2012 9:11 am

    Good one Tim – my personal bugaboo: why are we not signatories to UN Convention on Law of the Sea?Simple answer: Congress, esp narrow-minded, far-right, xenophobic twits. It’s insane and self-defeating (esp now that the Arctic is opening up). On another note, hope you weathered Sandy ok. We’re fine in Brooklyn, if a bit frazzled – AP


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