Broad Ocean Conservation Goals Pose Significant New Challenges
A comprehensive new ocean management plan proposed yesterday by the Obama administration aims to make sweeping changes in federal management and set ocean conservation as a top national priority. But translating those lofty goals into new approaches in agency management for land and water resources may prove difficult, ocean experts say.
“It’s an important day, these are great recommendations … but a big chunk of hard work lays ahead in fleshing out the details in this,” said Chris Mann of the Pew Environment Group, who contributed to an acclaimed national ocean report six years ago. “This is the ‘what’; we have to figure out how it is going to be carried out.”
The first step toward creating the new national ocean policy came yesterday, in a 38-page report that lists a host of new priorities for the federal government to protect and restore ocean health. The interim report (pdf) sets the protection of ocean resources as a national goal and creates an ocean council to guide the new ecosystem-based approach.
It will be up to President Obama to decide whether to enforce the recommendations in an executive order or memorandum to his agencies. Then federal officials must find a way to implement the plan, an effort to better manage and organize oversight of ocean resources — as the sea faces increasing development pressure coupled with threats to its resources from global warming.
The new ocean policy recommendations came in response to a directive Obama issued in June that created the ocean task force and called for the group to draft the plan. The two dozen top-level administration officials who make up the task force are also charged with developing a new national framework for marine spatial planning — or ocean “zoning” — by the end of the year.
The effort is intended to elevate the importance of oceans in federal decision-making and give a unifying voice to the 20 federal agencies and more than 140 separate laws that address aspects of ocean policy — from offshore energy exploration to agricultural runoff to conservation, fisheries and recreation.
Two major national oceans commissions recommended the creation of an overarching ocean policy five years ago in reports that found the marine environment is seriously depleted and disrupted by overfishing, development, pollution and climate change.
At its core, the new plan would set up a new National Ocean Council of top-level officials that would guide the new “ecosystem based” approach to ocean management. The new council would be akin to existing panels like the National Security Council but with a goal of ocean management and conservation. The heads of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy would chair the panel.
A promise — and a test
Marine experts widely hailed the new ocean policy — which sets ecosystem-based management for the oceans as a “foundational principle” — and said the effort represents a historic, unprecedented effort from the White House on ocean conservation. But they said the administration will have to make a significant effort if it hopes to see some of the goals for ocean conservation come to fruition.
“They want to use ecosystem-based management and marine spatial planning, those are words that are easier said than done,” said Mann.
“This is the promise and the need, the test will be whether we see new ways of acting by these agencies to turn these principles into action in the water and in different ways of making decisions,” said Lynne Zeitlin Hale, director of the global marine initiative for the Nature Conservancy.
The report includes a set of recommendations for implementation, with more detail and strategy than many marine advocates had expected. For example, Zeitlin Hale was encouraged by the specific requirements for the new interagency ocean council, which must meet several times a year to review whether agency actions are in line with the ocean policy. It is significant that Obama’s team started the ocean policy recommendations so early in the administration, she said, indicating that the oceans are a high priority to Obama’s environment team and giving the administration time to try to put the words into action.
“These are major steps forward,” Zeitlin Hale added.
The council builds on a similar committee developed in the Bush administration but adds a host of new requirements and goals for the panel. Top-level officials must meet at least twice a year, with more frequent staff-level meetings. The council is supposed to create “sustained high-level engagement” within the federal government on ocean stewardship, according to the report.
The recommendations set five areas of “special emphasis” for ocean conservation: climate change adaptation, regional ecosystem protection, water quality on land, and environmental stewardship in the Arctic and Great Lakes.
As a part of the new council, representatives from various agencies would be tasked to work together to implement the ocean conservation goals and hash out any conflicts among federal agencies along the way. Where agencies have previously clashed over conflicting uses in the ocean — such as shipping lanes that intersect with critical endangered species habitat — the council is supposed to work proactively to address those issues before the potential conflict arises.
A goal to be ‘thoughtful without having to play catch-up’
For their part, agency officials were still vague yesterday on how the new ocean policy would affect individual decisions like whether to approve shipping lanes, an offshore aquaculture proposal or offshore wind energy.
Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Interior Department and Defense Department said the new ocean policy would not change their ongoing work to review permits for projects such as the Cape Wind proposal or Navy training programs.
The changes could come later, according to NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. The process of siting and permitting similar projects in the future could take a very different approach after the task force creates recommendations for a “marine spatial planning” system that could essentially set up a system for zoning ocean resources.
“We want more comprehensive marine spatial planning that will provide an opportunity to do things proactively, not just reactively,” Lubchenco told reporters yesterday. “Currently we have a lot of different competing uses with no mechanism for thinking about the trade-off. The goal is to get to the point where we can be thoughtful without having to play catch-up.”
The group has another three months to lay the groundwork for the new planning system. The marine spatial planning framework will set parameters for how the federal government could approach ocean development at the ecosystem level, rather than just project by project in different isolated agencies.
The marine plan could eventually lead to a system of zoning the ocean for different uses, mapping out areas for different activities, such as energy development, recreation or fishing. Lubchenco has previously said the task force is unlikely to come up with something that specific by the end of the year but will more likely assemble a “road map” for how to move ahead with more specific plans.
The task force is in the midst of a cross-country tour of public hearings to gather input on the ocean plan. The group held a hearing in San Francisco yesterday and will hold sessions over the next two months in New Orleans, Rhode Island, Ohio and Hawaii. The first public hearing was last month in Anchorage, Alaska.
A 30-day public comment period on the draft plan began yesterday. The task force plans to release its final report in December.
By ALLISON WINTER of Greenwire.com
New York Times