Richardson Appointment: Good News for Oceans

Most people don't realize it, but the Secretary of Commerce has enormous influence over America's ocean resources. That's why I welcome the news that President-elect Obama is tapping Governor Bill Richardson for this position.

He is well known for his roles as energy secretary and UN ambassador under Clinton. But Richardson, a former NRDC trustee, has also proven himself as an environmental leader in the American West. He has opposed building dirty coal-fired power plants and drilling in pristine landscapes, and he has advanced clean energy solutions and energy efficiency and blazed a trail for regional caps on global warming emissions.

Richardson may come from a landlocked state, but his experience as a steward will serve him well in his new job. The Secretary of Commerce oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is responsible for our nation's ocean fisheries, marine sanctuaries, and coastal zone management programs. It also plays a major role in ocean science, including understanding the impacts of global warming on oceans.

In his role as Secretary of Commerce, Richardson can be a strong leader in reviving the health of our nation's oceans, which are in a state of serious decline. Here's just one alarming statistic: the population of the world's large fish, including tuna, marlin, and swordfish, is down 90 percent from original stocks. 

Richardson can also position the US as a leader on international ocean issues. He is a big-picture person, someone who understands the global stage. There are seven seas out there, and Richardson's experience with bringing nations together will be immensely valuable.

But his expertise on energy and climate will be especially critical. Pollution from offshore oil drilling has an enormous impact on marine life, while global warming is turning our oceans more acidic and seriously endangering oysters, clams, crabs, starfish, and all other marine species that need conditions low in acid to make shells. 

Richardson can help ensure that when the Obama administration and Congress address energy and climate issues there will be a strong voice for ocean conservation in these discussions.

If Richardson ever waivers in his focus on oceans, he just has to walk downstairs from his office. There in the basement of the Commerce Department sits Washington's aquarium--because that's where NOAA resides. Hopefully, he will make frequent visits and appreciate all the ocean richness that is at stake in decisions he makes.

Richardson can set the tone for his new role by calling on NOAA to do the following:

  1. Manage oceans holistically in the face of threats like climate change. This "whole ocean" approach should be coordinated across all NOAA programs and other related federal and state agencies.
  2. Protect imperiled species. NOAA should use the full scope of its legal authority under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act to ensure the survival and recovery of marine wildlife in the face of climate change and overfishing.
  3. Establish healthy national and global fisheries. NOAA should fulfill requirements to prevent overfishing and rebuild depleted species, as well as crack down on illegal fishing and overexploitation of ocean life around the globe.