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Fish on Fridays: Sensible Ocean Policy Falling Victim to Political Games

SOURCE: AP/Young Kwak

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) relentlessly attacks the administration's National Ocean Policy even though it would streamline government involvement, eliminate duplication of effort, and ensure taxpayers get more value for their dollars.

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Even in the bitterest partisan times, ocean issues tend to exist outside the traditional political boxing ring. They usually foster alliances based far more on geography than on party affiliation. Members who represent coastal states and districts usually recognize the value of sustaining and investing in our valuable ocean resources, and they prioritize them more than their inland counterparts. But in recent months the escalation of rancor and polarization encompassed even the normally temperate issue of ocean policy.

Nowhere is this tone more prevalent that in the House Committee on Natural Resources, where Republicans have made President Barack Obama’s National Ocean Policy public enemy number one.

Ever since its roll-out, the policy—implemented by an executive order in 2010 to provide a comprehensive set of guiding principles for the “stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes”—has been taking fire from opponents who cite it as an overreach that would spawn “job-killing regulations,” according to Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) and would mean the “death of all land-use planning” in this country, in the words of Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA).

Leaving aside the inherent contradiction espoused by Rep. McClintock—that the National Ocean Policy’s nefarious efforts to develop a framework for the great evil of ocean-use planning would in turn kill the wonderful benefits of land-use planning—boiling these statements down to their roots leaves little more than bald political rhetoric. In practice, the policy will improve scientific management and will help safeguard the commercial and recreational fishing industries—some of the most fundamental drivers of our ocean economy.

Rep. Hastings, who chairs the Committee on Natural Resources, and Rep. McClintock both hail from coastal states, yet neither of the regions they represent in Congress actually touch the Pacific Ocean. Still, the rivers that run through their districts ultimately terminate in the sea, and new findings are proving regularly what we already knew—what enters those rivers flushes into the ocean and directly affects all facets of marine life, including our fisheries.

Rep. Hastings has held multiple hearings about the National Ocean Policy in his committee this year, repeatedly questioning administration officials, scientists, industry members, and advocates about what he sees as an authoritarian overreach and a prime example of the regulatory stranglehold the Obama administration is putting on America’s economic growth. (In the interest of full disclosure, I testified before Rep. Hastings’s Committee on October 29, 2011.)

On April 2 Rep. Hastings sent a letter to his colleagues in the House Appropriations Committee—the holders of the congressional purse strings—asking them to “prohibit the use of funds for the implementation of the National Ocean Policy.”

On the whole, many fishing industry groups, including the regional fishery management councils tasked with developing fishery management plans, have expressed concern over the policy since its inception because they feared their voices would not be heard during the development of specific policy recommendations. Since the initial proposal was announced, the administration has taken steps to alleviate those concerns, including formally incorporating the councils in regional planning efforts.

Despite these improvements, Rep. Hastings has been joined in his effort to defund the policy by a coalition of ocean and inland industry groups, including commercial and recreational fishing organizations. In their letter the groups call out potential benefits of a national ocean policy “designed to stimulate job creation and economic growth while conserving the natural resources and marine habitat of our oceans and coastal regions.” Then, in the next sentence, they contradict this desire by calling for a “pause in implementation” of President Obama’s ocean policy, which explicitly shares those goals.

In this letter Rep. Hastings also says the policy is “especially alarming” because it “stretches far inland following rivers and their tributaries upstream for hundreds of miles.”

But of course it stretches upstream! There is no impermeable layer dividing salt water from fresh. This is a fundamental reason why we need the policy in the first place. In fact, the policy is designed specifically to ensure adequate and efficient coordination between the agencies responsible for inland activities that affect ocean resources and the agencies that oversee the ocean activities themselves.

The news this week provided specific examples of why such coordination is necessary. Pesticide use was found to affect Pacific salmon populations, and ocean acidification was proven to stunt oyster growth. These may seem like obvious conclusions to draw, but they both exemplify the difficulty in differentiating between oceans and lands. Similar to the estuarine boundary between salt water and fresh (how salty can fresh water be before it becomes seawater?) our jurisdictional boundaries are equally nebulous.

President Obama famously (if incorrectly) noted this blurring of the lines during his 2011 State of the Union address when he famously poked fun at the government’s management of salmon. “The Interior Department handles salmon when they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked,” he quipped to polite laughter in the House chamber and rolling echoes of punditry in the days after the speech.

The reality of salmon management is far more sensible. The Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is actually responsible for salmon species management throughout their range, though the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service does manage some salmon habitat programs.

Yet the point remains that what happens upstream in salmon runs can have a dramatic effect on the survival of one of the most valuable fisheries in the country. Thus it makes a great deal of sense that we should coordinate efforts across federal agencies to manage issues that transcend traditional boundaries. For example: If pesticides make life more difficult for salmon, then the pesticide regulators should be talking to the fisheries biologists to figure out how to minimize that impact. This is precisely the kind of interagency collaboration the National Ocean Policy is designed to facilitate.

Further, Hastings’s efforts to defund the policy’s recommendations not only would prevent government operations from becoming more efficient by collaborating across traditional agency boundaries but could also have devastating ramifications for the day-to-day programs that improve fishery management and make life better for fishermen.

Cutting funding as Rep. Hastings has requested risks eliminating funding for many of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s existing programs that fishermen rely on or that could greatly enhance the understanding of what factors other than fishing pressure are causing fish stocks to decline and prevent their rebuilding.

Specifically, the National Ocean Policy’s Draft Implementation Plan calls for:

  • Sustaining ocean observing systems that provide critical data for fishery stock assessments
  • Conducting research on what stressors (habitat degradation, pollution, global climate change, etc.) affect fish stocks other than fishing mortality
  • Prioritizing a National Shellfish Initiative to investigate potential ecosystem and economic benefits of shellfish aquaculture
  • Identifying key ecosystem protection areas to enhance the quality of habitat that provides sanctuary and nurseries for the “more than half of all fish caught in US waters [that] depend on the estuaries and coastal wetlands at some point in their life cycles”
  • Understanding and combatting hypoxia (lack of oxygen) caused by polluted runoff from rivers and streams that can lead to massive fish kills, harmful algal blooms, and other phenomena that adversely affect fish populations

These programs are not new, and administration officials have been abundantly clear in their testimony before Congress and, in some cases, in the face of withering interrogation, that the National Ocean Policy does not create any new regulations for how we use our ocean space.

Healthy oceans and coasts are among the strongest economic drivers and most valuable resources our nation possesses. The National Ocean Policy recognizes this fact and sets forth a proactive framework to streamline government involvement, eliminate duplication of effort, and ensure taxpayers get more value for their dollars—exactly what small government Republicans claim they want. Maybe next time we should get Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to propose it.

Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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This is part of a regular column: Fish on Fridays

For more from the same column, click here