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Addressing the Crisis in America's Oceans

Author: Scott G. Borgerson
April 7, 2009

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By every measure, serious policy reform is long overdue to address the crisis in the marine environment of the United States.†Ninety percent of large predatory fish are now gone. There is a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, created by an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen fertilizer carried by the Mississippi River from America's hinterland, that has grown to an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. wetlands have vanished due to development, and twenty-six thousand of the country's beaches have been temporarily closed or put under advisories because of pollution. These are just a few of the indicators that U.S. oceans are in serious trouble. Reversing this decline in ocean health requires a comprehensive national ocean policy, coordination among agencies, and collaboration with states and stakeholders.

Fortunately, a fresh blueprint for such a policy has been produced. On April 7, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI) published a landmark report (PDF), Changing Oceans, Changing World, which details ocean policy priorities for the administration of President Barack Obama and the new Congress.

The report outlines a series of excellent recommendations that include strengthening science- and ecosystem-based approaches to ocean management and developing a sorely needed national ocean policy. It details how a comprehensive ocean agenda should be integrated with economic recovery efforts and programs to help the nation transition to a green economy.

Major obstacles to reform include a lack of a clear policy direction from the federal government, confusing and overlapping jurisdictions, and fragmented laws. Currently, at the national level alone, U.S. waters are managed under more than 140 federal laws implemented by eighteen different federal agencies.

Oceans and the policies affecting them have been adrift without a senior champion with the president's ear.

Historically, ocean governance has been sectoral. Because of changes in our knowledge of how ocean systems work, we now more fully understand that ecosystems and the resources they possess are integrally connected. Management systems must accommodate this interconnectivity. Gone are the days when ocean policy could be approached sector-by-sector and resource-by-resource. New management systems must look at entire ocean and coastal ecosystems and be able to make sound decisions about how, where, and to what degree activities such as fishing, coastal development, and energy production will take place within those networks. This only can be achieved with a comprehensive ocean policy that articulates a vision for ecologically and economically healthy ocean and coastal areas and then supports a strong management structure to implement such a policy.

A comprehensive policy has remained an elusive goal partly because in the executive branch no senior White House official owns ocean issues. The oceans are vast, and the issues involved are so numerous that they do not fit neatly into any single official's inbox. There is no ocean czar, nor, for that matter, is any senior official on the National Security Council (NSC) charged with overseeing ocean issues solely (although there is a NSC Maritime Security Policy Coordinating Committee). Ocean issues fall under the purview of the departments of Defense, State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Treasury, among others, as well as under the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the authority of numerous congressional committees. Important to all but owned by no one, oceans and the policies affecting them have been adrift without a senior champion that has the president's ear.

[T]here are very compelling reasons to join the [Law of the Sea] treaty now so that the United States can be better prepared to advance its national security, economic, and environmental interests.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative recommends that the president appoint a high-level adviser on ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes issues equal in rank to the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality. This new senior official would be responsible for leading a strengthened committee on ocean policy and for coordinating U.S. ocean policy among all executive agencies. This portfolio should include developing an integrated offshore planning and management regime, coordinating ocean governance among the thirty coastal states, and working with Congress to pass a comprehensive ocean policy act that would align efforts across the multiple committees with oversight of ocean-related activities.

Oceans also require a regime of international law and collaborative approaches to their management. To this end, the report recommends that the United States do the following:

1) Accede to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This treaty--the instrument that created the overarching governance framework for nearly three-quarters of the earth's surface and what lies above and beneath it--has been signed and ratified by 156 countries but not by the United States. The convention and the 1994 agreement on its implementation have been in force for more than a decade, but while the United States treats most parts of the convention as customary international law, it remains among only a handful of countries--and one of an even smaller number with coastlines, including Syria, North Korea, and Iran--to have signed but not yet acceded to the treaty. With strong bipartisan support, there are very compelling reasons to join the treaty now so that the United States can be better prepared to advance its national security, economic, and environmental interests.

2) Protect the Arctic marine ecosystem. The opening Arctic is an international issue that must receive special consideration from the Obama administration. For the United States, this new frontier could support a variety of economic activities and new jobs in the coming decades, including traditional and alternative energy exploration and development, marine commerce, and sustainable development of new fisheries. Concerted international engagement to ensure effective and integrated ecosystem-based management of human activities in the Arctic is essential. In the Arctic, joining the Law of the Sea Convention would also provide solid legal bedrock on which to build elegant and effective governance structures for this geostrategically critical region.

3) Provide greater leadership to address the drastic decline in marine fisheries. This decline is driven in large part by the prevalence of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and the overcapitalization of the global commercial fishing fleet due to fishing subsidies. To protect the competitiveness of U.S. exports in the international seafood market and to protect our domestic commercial fisheries, the administration should fully implement the IUU fishing provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and enhance efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to manage, enforce, and coordinate technical assistance for nations engaging in IUU fishing. The report is also right to support ongoing U.S. efforts calling for an end to fishing subsidies that promote overcapitalization and global depletion of fish stocks.

While perhaps overlooked in some traditional policy circles, sound ocean management is critical to safeguarding U.S. interests.† From national security concerns like maintaining the mobility of a hegemonic navy and keeping critical shipping lanes open, to economic issues like commercial fishing and renewable energy, to environmental concerns such as ocean acidification and warming, the United States needs to fundamentally reform its approach to ocean policy. The landmark Joint Ocean Commission Initiative report, the most important guidance for ocean policy in recent history, offers a sound blueprint for bipartisan action.

*Editor's Note: The author contributed to the compilation of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative's recommendations.

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