Planning for Our Oceans’ Future

Obama Signs Executive Order Creating New National Ocean Policy

President Obama codifies the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force recommendations, taking a big step to preserve our oceans, write Laura Cantral and Andrew Light.

The sun sets at the Point Vicente Park on the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California—an area where the EPA has spent millions to clean up decades of DDT deposits spilled illegally into the sewers and out into the ocean. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
The sun sets at the Point Vicente Park on the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California—an area where the EPA has spent millions to clean up decades of DDT deposits spilled illegally into the sewers and out into the ocean. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)

The Obama administration released the final recommendations of an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force yesterday, and the president immediately turned around and signed it into an executive order. The recommendations call for the establishment of a new national policy to protect and restore our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. Ocean conservation and industry groups have long identified a comprehensive national ocean policy as a priority. There is urgent need for more coordination between the multiple federal agencies with ocean management responsibilities and greater coherency between the numerous laws addressing ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources. The United States has now taken a major step forward in achieving that goal.

President Obama established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force in June 2009 and charged it with developing a recommendation for a national ocean policy, as well as a framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning. The White House Council on Environmental Quality led the task force, which included 24 senior-level policy officials from across the federal government agencies. The task force gathered input from ocean user groups and citizens as it shaped its recommendations through a series of public discussions throughout the country, hundreds of meetings with stakeholders, and two public comment periods.

The task force also drew from a number of expert groups over the last year, including the recommendations of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, the Pew Oceans Commission, and the new union of these two groups—the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative that detailed many of the policies taken up by the task force. CAP President and CEO John Podesta recently joined the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, which will now turn to monitoring and assessing the development of this new policy.

The new national policy finally provides a common vision and the coordinating structures needed to protect, restore, and sustain the environmental and economic health of our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. One of the key recommendations is the creation of a National Ocean Council, which will be charged with coordinating implementation of the national policy across the federal government. This council will formally engage with state, region, tribal, and local authorities to address priority issues.

The council is also tasked with advancing coastal and marine spatial planning—one of the priority issues identified by the task force. This comprehensive and adaptive tool employs sound science to identify areas most suitable for various ocean activities in order to reduce conflicts and environmental damage, to balance diverse activities for common areas such as fisheries management and wildlife protection, and preserve critical ecosystem services.

The council will also bring coherence to an often-dizzying area of local, state, and federal governance issues that have hindered the sustainable development of some ocean resources. For instance, deployment of wave powered energy buoys in the Pacific Northwest has been significantly delayed because of conflicts involving overlapping jurisdictions between different agencies authorizing such projects.

The new policy framework will go a long way toward ensuring effective preparation and management by focusing immediate attention and resources on priority issues. Put into practice, this policy will streamline oversight and help eliminate conflicting or overlapping mandates and responsibilities. These steps are essential to ensuring the long-term health of coastal and marine ecosystems and ocean-dependent industries—from commercial fishing to coastal tourism—that are threatened by everything from oil spills to the effects of climate change such as ocean acidification and sea level rise.

The recent BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico dramatically underscores the need for a policy that would provide a common vision for ocean management across federal agencies and a clear delineation of responsibilities. Any single ocean policy would not have prevented such a disaster, but a strong national ocean policy would have improved the situation by providing necessary oversight and coordination, improved protection of ecosystems and natural resources, and an integrated approach to management that includes enforcement of the varying ocean uses.

More and more users tap into our ocean resources every day—for extractive activities such as oil drilling and fishing, and for leisure activities such as surfing and bird-watching. All of these are important, and we need to protect these valuable resources to sustain the uses people want and need to support their livelihoods. The new executive order will do just that by providing a strong new national policy to allow the nation to take significant steps toward protecting and restoring our ocean and coastal ecosystems so they will be healthy, resilient, and capable of providing the goods and services that we all enjoy.

Laura Cantral is a Senior Mediator and Program Manager at the Meridian Institute. Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Andrew Light

Senior Fellow