An ocean policy for the future

An op-ed by MCBI President Elliott A. Norse:

The 2010 Winter Olympics gave “The Great One,” hockey player Wayne Gretzky, the honor of lighting the Olympic Cauldron. Seeing him reminded me of his famous quote: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

As in hockey, success in ocean policy comes from foresight, communication and willingness to take a hit for the good of the team. President Obama should heed Gretzky’s advice as he leads our nation toward an ocean policy to recover the health of America’s oceans and generate needed American jobs. Our oceans and coasts are still governed by a hodgepodge of 140 different federal laws and 20 different federal agencies, each with different goals and often conflicting mandates.

Recently the Obama administration proposed our country’s first National Ocean Policy to improve coordination among federal, state, tribal and local authorities for managing activities in our coastal, Great Lakes and ocean waters.

This is crucial because the way America has governed our oceans reflects the outmoded perspective that scientists, legislators and the public held from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Back then, almost everyone believed that oceans were invulnerable, that the biggest challenges were how best to use their “assimilative capacity” for pollutants, while encouraging “full utilization” of their seemingly limitless resources.

Federal policies rested on the belief that humankind could not hurt the oceans. This led each agency to champion special interests, rather than protecting the public’s interest in healthy oceans. Individual agencies aided shipping or oil drilling or fisheries or pollution prevention. But nobody was in charge of protecting our oceans. Maybe that made sense when people thought they didn’t need protecting.

Now we know better. In my 1993 book “Global Marine Biological Diversity,” 106 scientists and policy experts detailed how our oceans are in trouble. Five years later, 1,605 scientists released “Troubled Waters: A Call for Action” on Capitol Hill, proclaiming publicly that our oceans are imperiled. Since then, almost everywhere my fellow scientists have looked, the bottom line is the same: Our oceans’ health is declining.

Pollution that once didn’t seem problematic (nutrients, noise, plastics, endocrine disruptors and carbon dioxide-caused acidification) is now harming marine species and ecosystems. The abalone I fished for 40 years ago are now endangered species. Marine life including corals, sharks and Hawaiian monk seals now face increasing risk due to our management failures. And looming over all are the profound impacts of human-caused climate change.

If current trends continue, the time will soon come when bluefin tunas are as rare as California condors. Recreational and commercial fishermen, conservationists and shippers, scientists and energy producers want to avoid that. As a sportfisherman since age 5, who began snorkeling at age 8, got a doctorate in marine biology at 28 and who wants to eat wild salmon at 62, I have a big stake in diverse, productive oceans.

And this isn’t just about you and me: My three grandchildren and all children deserve oceans filled with life in which to swim, fish, whale-watch or scuba dive. Expanded, more intense uses of our oceans require new, more effective ways of thinking and acting. We must make room for all legitimate ocean interests that can win public support in their regions. And we must do ecosystem-based planning to recover marine ecosystems and generate new jobs. It’s not either/or; it’s got to be both.

To do this, however, we need our government to listen, really listen, to the concerns of public interests and ocean users, from Hawaii to Iowa. The old siloed approach to marine issues – with every government agency pushing its pet interests while ignoring others’ issues and the bigger picture – must end now. Our National Ocean Policy needs to be a unifying framework to strengthen our country’s ability to recover the health of coastal and ocean ecosystems, and ensure sustainable development of our marine resources.

Because policymaking, like hockey, is a team sport, we need our federal agencies to work together to benefit all Americans. We will all be winners when manage our oceans for where they should be, rather than where they’ve been headed until now.

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