A Call for Ocean-Policy Reform

Growing up in New York City, I enjoyed going to Jones Beach on a hot summer day with my family, spending the day swimming in the ocean, and then having dinner at Lundy's seafood restaurant on our way home. At that time, my parents didn't have to worry about the ocean water we swam in being polluted or the seafood we ate being contaminated or the last of a dying breed. But things have changed dramatically since then. Scientists tell us that the oceans are in a state of silent collapse and that we need to act now or it will be much harder and more expensive to fix later.

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth's surface and provide us with food, oxygen, and medicines. They help regulate our climate, and they provide recreational opportunities, jobs, and a unique way of life for residents and visitors of coastal communities. The United States has the largest ocean area under its jurisdiction of any country -- an area larger than the entire U.S. land mass.

For most of our history, the resources of the sea were thought to be infinite. Yet over the last decade, we have seen one study after another reveal a very different story: 75 percent of the world's ocean fisheries have been pushed to or past the limits of sustainability; 90 percent of large ocean fish -- swordfish, marlin, tunas, and cod -- are already gone from the world's oceans; each year, we are warned by the government to limit our consumption of many popular fish because of mercury or PCB contamination; and during the swimming season, we are often cautioned not to swim in the ocean because of bacteria or other disease-causing pathogens in the water. There are increasing numbers of dead zones -- areas largely devoid of marine life -- and harmful red and brown tides popping up all along our coasts. The buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is raising ocean temperatures and making the oceans more acidic.

Of the many causes of this decline, summarized elsewhere in this report, a principal one is the lack of a coherent governance regime for the oceans. We have a myriad of laws, agencies, and levels of government that affect the ocean but little coordination among them and no unifying vision or governing policy. The recent lifting of the 27-year-old moratorium on drilling off the east and west coasts combined with the increasing number of proposals for liquefied natural gas terminals in the ocean, aquaculture facilities, and renewable-energy projects underscore the urgent need to reform and strengthen U.S. ocean policy.

Several years ago, in response to the growing concern about the serious decline of the oceans, two national commissions, the independent Pew Oceans Commission and the congressionally established U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, conducted comprehensive reviews of U.S. ocean policy. Each commission spent approximately three years doing in-depth research and analysis and holding public hearings and meetings around the country. The Pew Oceans Commission included public officials, academics, leaders of fishing groups and environmental organizations and was chaired by Leon E. Panetta, a former member of Congress, who had served as director of the Office of Management and Budget and then as chief of staff to President Clinton. The U.S. commissioners were appointed by President Bush, with congressional input, and were drawn from academia, industry, the military, and public life. The U.S. commission was chaired by retired Adm. James D. Watkins, a former chief of naval operations during the Reagan administration and secretary of energy during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Despite their very different compositions, both commissions reached surprisingly similar conclusions. They found that the oceans were in serious decline and that a major overhaul of U.S. ocean policy was needed to reverse the decline.

The fundamental conclusion of the Pew Oceans Commission was that the economic sustainability of the ocean depends on its ecological sustainability. The commission recommended that national ocean policy be realigned to reflect and apply principles of ecosystem health and integrity, sustainability, and precaution. The commission also said we must redefine our relationship with the ocean to reflect an understanding of the strong connection between the land and the sea.

To embrace these reforms, the Pew Oceans Commission recommended that the nation take five priority actions:  

  • Adopt a national ocean policy based on protecting ocean ecosystem health and requiring sustainable use of ocean resources.
  • Encourage comprehensive and coordinated governance of ocean resources;
  • Restructure fishery-management institutions and reorient fishery policy to protect and sustain ecosystems on which fisheries depend.
  • Control sources of pollution, particularly nutrients, that are harming marine ecosystems.
  • Protect important habitat and manage coastal development to minimize habitat damage and water quality impairment.

The U.S. commission agreed that existing management approaches should be updated to reflect new scientific findings that demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of natural systems. It identified a number of "critical actions" including: improved governance to address the current confusing array of agencies with conflicting mandates; doubling the nation's investment in ocean research; implementing an Integrated Ocean Observing System; strengthening coastal and watershed management; reforming fishery management; acceding to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and establishing an Ocean Policy Trust Fund dedicated to supporting improved ocean and coastal management at the federal and state levels.

Despite the call for urgent action, the pace of implementation of the two commission recommendations has been frustratingly slow, as reflected in the overall grade of C given in the oceans' "report card" issued in 2008 by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI), an initiative led by Panetta and Watkins to promote implementation of the two commission reports. The effort to improve the way we govern our oceans at the national level received a D, international leadership by the U.S. on ocean issues received a C+, and the effort to obtain new, much-needed funding for ocean programs received a D+.

The picture is not all grim, though. Important steps have been taken. One is the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006, which set a firm deadline for ending overfishing. Some marine protected areas, such as in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, have been established. Despite and perhaps because of the overall lack of progress at the national level, there has been a fair amount of action at the state and regional levels. Benchmark ocean legislation has been passed in California, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. West Coast governors have entered into an agreement that lays out an action agenda to strengthen ocean management for their region. These and other state and regional efforts earned an A- in JOCI's report card. "Because states and regions have done much of the groundwork for ocean and coastal protection on the local level, the building blocks are in place," observed Panetta. "But they can only go so far without federal collaboration and support."

Why the lack of progress at the national level? The reasons include too few ocean champions on the Hill, the lack of strong administration leadership, tight budget times, and a lack of public awareness. We face a real challenge in conveying the seriousness of the problems when people cannot see what's going on under the waves. Often, divers, snorkelers, boaters, and fishermen are the ones who use and enjoy the ocean, see what's happening, and are the most concerned. But the decline of the oceans affects all of us.

With the advent of a new president and a new Congress, we have the opportunity to make real progress in implementing a national oceans agenda that builds on the recommendations of the two national ocean commissions. First and foremost, we need to reform the way we manage our oceans in order to deal effectively with the myriad threats they face. To that end, the president, through an executive order, or Congress, through legislation, should establish a national ocean policy to protect, maintain, and restore the health of our ocean ecosystems. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the nation's top civilian ocean agency) should also be strengthened so it can provide effective leadership in implementing such a policy. Leadership is also needed in the Executive Office of the President on these issues to ensure that federal agencies are acting in a coordinated manner.

Among other top priorities are ending overfishing of our nation's ocean fish populations by 2011, as required by federal law, and ensuring the prompt rebuilding of depleted fish populations to healthy levels. The president also should establish a scientifically based, national network of marine protected areas where ocean life can rebound and flourish. We have wildlife refuges, national parks, and wilderness areas on land. We need a similar system of protected areas in the ocean. The president and Congress should fund research to better assess the effects on the oceans of global warming and the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide and make sure that any climate change legislation or strategy takes proper account of ocean impacts and makes improved resilience of ocean systems a goal of any climate-adaptation strategy. Support of state ocean protection initiatives and of the state/federal ocean partnerships that are now emerging should be a priority.

Finally, international leadership on ocean issues is essential. The president should support and the Senate should take quick action to accede to the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, which establishes the basic rules of international ocean management. But leadership should not stop there. The U.S. needs to be a leader in protecting vulnerable marine areas from the adverse impacts of destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling and in the establishment of a regime to establish marine protected areas on the high seas -- the area beyond any one nation's jurisdiction.

In short, if we are to have clean beaches, healthy and abundant seafood, and oceans teeming with wildlife for our children and grandchildren to use and enjoy, our next president and Congress must act decisively. Not one but two national commissions have laid out the roadmap for what must be done. The president and Congress now need to implement it.