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Fish on Fridays: Lamenting the Loss of an Ocean Champion

SOURCE: AP/Carolyn Kaster

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) speaks to media outside her office on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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For the past four decades, the understanding in Maine has been that the tide comes in, the tide goes out, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) serves as a representative of the people. So her announcement last Tuesday that she would not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate rocked her home state. It also sent shock waves through Washington, changing the conventional wisdom that firmly believed her Republican party would take control of the upper chamber of Congress in 2013. In addition to these broader and more widely discussed ramifications, her decision will have a lasting effect on what became one of her signature issues—the health and vitality of America’s oceans, coasts, and fisheries.

The nooks and crannies of Maine’s rocky shore mean Sen. Snowe’s home state includes nearly 3,500 miles of coastline, enough to barely edge out California for fourth place on the national list (behind Alaska, Florida, and Louisiana). This, combined with a fishing industry that annually nets about $300 million, provided ample motivation to make ocean issues one of her top priorities. For more than a dozen years, Sen. Snowe has served as the chair or ranking member (depending on whether Republicans were in the majority or the minority) of the Senate’s ocean, fisheries, and Coast Guard subcommittee.

Now with her impending departure, there is no clear-cut ocean leader waiting in the wings to fill her shoes. Sen. Snowe was poised to gain her party’s top spot on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which oversees the oceans subcommittee—a seat that’s among the most powerful in Washington when it comes to ocean issues. Now the gavel will likely pass to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), one of eight men deadlocked atop the National Journal’s list of “Most Conservative Senators,” and perhaps the Senate’s staunchest opponent of efforts to increase funding for ocean priorities—or any other priorities for that matter. Thus the rather collegial, nonconfrontational manner in which the Senate has handed ocean issues for at least the last two decades is likely to become a thing of the past.

As a former staffer for Sen. Snowe on the oceans subcommittee, I was perpetually inspired by her integrity, her work ethic, and her comprehensive approach to legislating. This fit squarely in line with the tone set by the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) who served as their parties’ respective leaders on the Commerce Committee when I began my tenure. These two men, who between them have nearly a century of service in the Senate, were close friends, regularly referring to one another as brothers, and the directive they passed on to their staff was to prioritize compromise over blunt force when it came time to move legislation. The current leadership, comprised of Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), has largely continued this trend.

Likewise, Sen. Snowe embraces this mentality. In true testament to her ability to build unlikely coalitions, the announcement of her retirement has drawn expressions of dismay melded with deep appreciation from both the commercial fishing community and environmental groups—two constituencies that could sustain a spirited debate on whether or not the sky is, in fact, blue.

Furthermore, her approach has gotten results. Her underlying principle when it comes to ocean management has always been that science must be paramount in the decision-making process. That’s an easy thing to say, but she backs it up with consistent efforts to increase funding for fisheries stock assessments, cooperative research allowing fishermen and scientists to work together and learn from one another, and programs to support sustainable fisheries and benefit fishing communities today and into the future.

The integrated ocean observing system, or IOOS—a network of buoys, monitoring stations, and satellites that gather oceanographic and atmospheric data that contribute to everything from daily weather forecasts to baseline scientific research—has always been among her highest priorities. Heady stuff, and not particularly sexy. You’ll never see a campaign ad touting the value of an integrated ocean observing system. Yet Sen. Snowe’s support has resulted in passage of multiple bills implementing and expanding the system.

Even in today’s dire budget climate, she understands the critical nature of these data, and she supports it tirelessly. She doesn’t do it because it garners votes or attracts hefty campaign contributions, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do for America and for our oceans.

She had more high-profile victories as well. As the Senate toiled through the process of creating a new Department of Homeland Security following the 9/11 attacks, there was a movement in Congress to divide the missions of the Coast Guard into two separate agencies and departments. Seeing the folly of the idea, Sen. Snowe pulled a like-minded group of senators together and made sure the Coast Guard emerged from the reorganization as a cohesive unit.

Among her constituents and the ocean community, she is perhaps best known as an advocate for fishermen. Thoughtful and well-reasoned, she always sought a balance between maintaining fishing communities and jobs today and ensuring a sustainable fish population to support the industry tomorrow. She was key to brokering compromises on a controversial rule requiring lobstermen to use new type of rope on their gear to protect whales, and on a new management system for New England’s historic groundfishery. In both cases, she led a path through a minefield of potential disasters that threatened to derail the process, and she emerged with the respect, if not always the agreement, of fishermen, environmentalists, and regulators alike.

But when no one is willing to join a coalition, it becomes mighty hard to make progress. Sen. Snowe has watched and lamented the departure of many of her moderate colleagues like former Sens. Lincoln Chaffee, Blanche Lincoln, and Evan Bayh who have either retired or failed to win reelection. And recent years have seen the loss of many senior, longer-tenured senators—Stevens, Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Fritz Hollings, and the like—products of a time when compromise was something to be valued rather than vilified. We’re left with a body in which polarization has all but extinguished bipartisan collegiality and ground the gears of Congress to a virtual standstill. As Sen. Snowe herself put it in a Washington Post column explaining her decision, “the Senate is not living up to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.”

In this sense, her leadership on the oceans subcommittee will be irreplaceable and will leave a leadership void within the Republican Party when it comes to prioritizing ocean issues. Ultimately, what ocean advocates will face in the 113th Congress will be emblematic of the divisiveness we now see across Capitol Hill. As Snowe told a reporter from Maine’s WABI television the day after her announcement, she felt the recent rancor and entrenchment in Washington at this critical juncture in our nation’s history means we have “lost precious time in the life of America.”

Sadly, her departure means we are also poised to lose precious time in the life of our oceans. More troubling, it means we are losing a great leader and one of our few remaining true ocean champions.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress.

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This is part of a regular column: Fish on Fridays

For more from the same column, click here