Casting a wide net for an ocean rescue

Editorial, San Francisco Chronicle

Originally published on page E-10, Sunday, March 28, 2010.

The rumor seemed to gain a life of its own in the blogosphere: President Obama was poised to ban sportfishing in America. The source of the misinformation was a column earlier this month on ESPNOutdoors.com, which quickly admitted to “several errors in the editing and presentation” of a commentary on President Obama’s Ocean Policy Task Force. But the correction could not stop right-wing bloggers and even some members of Congress from seizing on what they viewed as a “gotcha” moment against the president.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, has been following the task force’s work closely – and with great hope that it could help the nation’s fisheries. He knew the rumor was nonsense, yet he was surprised to hear it parroted with concern last week by a friend who was also the longtime owner of a charter boat.

“The fishing industry is not immune from Tea Baggers,” Grader observed.

In truth, the Obama administration’s designs for a comprehensive ocean management plan could be just what the fishing industry needs to preserve its rightful place in waters where the activities of other interests are often in direct conflict with the health of the fisheries. Also, the 24 federal agencies and myriad state and local regulators that oversee ocean activities sometimes end up working at cross purposes.

Under the task force plan, the federal government would set up an “ecosystem based” approach to replace the piecemeal regulation of the ocean – including everything from shipping and oil and gas exploration to aquaculture and the development of renewable energy from waves or wind. The comprehensive management system would apply to oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes.

A 2003 Pew Oceans Commission report had found America’s oceans to be “in crisis” as a result of escalating damage to fisheries, wetlands, coral, beaches and water quality. Since then, the threat to ocean health has only intensified with the pressures to develop oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, along with a growing push to tap wave power and site wind turbines off the East Coast.

In California, of course, the ocean is not only a defining element of the state’s aesthetic appeal, it is a major component of its economy.

The proposed National Ocean Policy would elevate conservation as a priority – and science as a guiding principle – in trying to balance the conflicting pressures on the ocean. It would establish nine regional planning bodies to bring the various interests together.

Some recreational fishing advocates have pointed to the task force call for “ecosystem based management as a foundational principle” as a cause for concern.

But Grader, who has seen the fisheries crises created in California as a result of narrow and short-term thinking, argued that a more holistic approach is exactly what is needed.

“When you look at marine zoning and how to provide for various uses, yes, there is a chance it will get zoned out of certain areas,” he said. But there is also a good chance that a comprehensive strategy will result in better protection of “areas we really care about,” he added.

Hundreds of marine scientists recently wrote a letter to the president urging him to sign an executive order creating the nation’s first National Ocean Policy.

“Unfortunately, federal agencies have long focused mainly on their individual mandates rather than the overall health of our oceans … a National Ocean Policy needs to direct federal agencies unambiguously to work together effectively to protect, maintain and restore the diversity and productivity of America’s marine ecosystems as economic activities in our oceans expand,” the scientists told Obama.

As they noted, federal policy must reflect the “new scientific understanding of our oceans’ values and vulnerabilities.” The comprehensive approach makes sense, and should be a blessing, not a threat, to men and women who fish for joy, for a living – or both.

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