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Establish the National Endowment for the Oceans

Fishermen mend nets

SOURCE: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

Fishermen Lucas Dewildt and Dillon Robbins mend groundfishing nets in Portland, Maine.

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Politico reported last week that Congress seems to be done legislating for 2013. While such an outcome wouldn’t be shocking for an anemic legislative body with a 9 percent approval rating that spends more time talking about a broken website than its own broken procedures, there’s at least one piece of legislation making headway toward passage before the year runs out.

The House and Senate have each passed a bill reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA. While this law, first enacted in 1974, establishes parameters for managing U.S. freshwater resources, the versions passed in each house of Congress include provisions with sweeping ramifications for our oceans and coasts. The House bill attempts to curtail necessary enhancements for federal management of our marine resources, while the Senate version would establish a mechanism to allocate sorely needed funding to state and federal ocean priorities.

Given the nature of conference discussions, there will surely be pressure to cast aside both provisions in a standard display of quid pro quo. But a deeper look makes it clear that these two provisions do not simply cancel one another out. The House provision is an expression of politically motivated fears and insecurities while the Senate’s represents a huge step forward for the economic and environmental vitality of our oceans and coasts.

Although these two provisions are the only ones in WRDA that focus primarily on ocean issues, they should not be seen as a package deal. And one particular constituency can be key to their success or failure: commercial and recreational fishermen. As the designated conferees and their staff members from each house come together in search of mutually acceptable compromise language, lawmakers should reject the House’s proposal and include the Senate’s.

Prior to final passage of its WRDA bill, the House voted 225–193 to include an amendment by Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) that would prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—the primary agency regulated by WRDA—from participating in any activities related to the National Ocean Policy. Rep. Flores has successfully included several similar anti-National Ocean Policy provisions to bills in the past, despite its potential benefits for coastal states and regions.

The National Ocean Policy, initiated under President George W. Bush and implemented via executive order by President Barack Obama in 2010, has become a punching bag for Flores and other conservatives, particularly those on the Natural Resources Committee. They irrationally fear that it could make an end run around congressional authority and lead to imposition of new regulations. In reality, the policy permits government agencies to operate more efficiently and reduce duplication of effort while allowing different regions of the country to prioritize the ocean issues and concerns that matter most to them.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, instead of constructing roadblocks to prevent efficient ocean management, members voted to add language to its bill establishing the framework of a National Endowment for the Oceans. And unlike the House vote—which was almost exclusively along party lines—13 Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic coalition to pass the amendment by a vote of 67–32, paving the way for creation of a dedicated source of funding for ocean priorities.

The National Endowment for the Oceans, introduced by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), would also give states more of a say in how they prioritize the ocean issues they consider to be most critical, but that’s about where the similarities between it and the National Ocean Policy end. The endowment would create a congressionally authorized fund dedicated to ocean health. Roughly two-thirds of its annual disbursement would go directly to coastal states in proportion to the length of their shorelines and size of their coastal populations, while a second, national-scale grant program with similar goals would be administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

In the past, despite its potential benefits to their industry, some fishermen have been slow to warm up to the National Ocean Policy. For starters, they felt their voices were not adequately represented during the early stages of the policy’s development, and that initial snub has proven difficult for the industry to forget. While their concerns were not without merit, the Obama administration and the National Ocean Council have taken great pains to address them.

Regardless of how fishermen feel about the National Ocean Policy, they would be wise to embrace the effort to establish the National Endowment for the Oceans. There is a general consensus that the biggest problem facing America’s fishing industry is a lack of funding for science and monitoring, a shortfall that directly affects fishermen’s bottom lines. The law requires regulators to set fishermen’s catch limits based on the best science available. Better data means more certainty to assessments. In turn, that would allow fishery managers to set catch limits that more accurately reflect the true health of fish populations. This would then either give fishermen more fish to catch in the short term or increase the likelihood that today’s restrictions will lead to healthier fish populations and higher future quotas.

A robust, well-funded National Endowment for the Oceans would give states the option to invest in additional or supplemental assessments for fisheries that drive their economies. It would also allow the quasi-governmental regional fishery management councils, which develop and recommend fishery management plans to government regulators, to apply for money to serve their most pressing research needs without having to fight for their inclusion in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget.

In a legislative climate where virtually every potential achievement is stonewalled by partisan bickering, ocean industries and advocates suddenly find themselves with a rare opportunity to lead Congress to a positive decision. The establishment of the National Endowment for the Oceans is a long-overdue nod to the economic potential of our nation’s oceans and coasts.

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

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