Reflections on Second Anniversary of National Ocean Policy

This week marks the two-year anniversary of our National Ocean Policy, a landmark victory for ocean life, and for all of us who love, use, and make a living off the ocean. Only two years ago, President Obama established the nation’s first comprehensive policy to protect the long-term health of our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. Today, we’re seeing progress in implementation, as our government leaders come together to safeguard marine resources and the jobs that depend on them. However, much more is needed. 

For too long, we’ve watched our oceans struggle under the enormous strain of problems like pollution, ocean acidification, catastrophic oil spills, and overfishing. In U.S. waters, roughly 20 percent of fisheries have been overfished. Off the Gulf of Mexico, a single dead zone recently reached the size of the entire state of New Jersey. Ocean waters are acidifying as they absorb carbon dioxide pollution from our atmosphere, threatening to kill of shallow-water corals, essential habitat for thousands of species.

These problems don’t just affect fish, seaweed, or ocean microbes we can’t see. Millions of hardworking Americans depend directly on healthy ocean resources. In 2009 alone, some 1.8 million jobs were dependent on ocean-related tourism and recreation. Commercial fishing supported more than 1 million American jobs that same year.

In fact, our oceans contribute more to our nation’s economic output than the entire U.S. farm sector.  Protecting our oceans isn’t only about saving fish or whales or dolphins. It’s about keeping our economy strong for decades to come.

The National Ocean Policy (NOP) helps us address all the challenges facing our oceans in a comprehensive way. For decades, some 140 laws and more than 20 different federal entities have governed activity in our oceans. Conflicting mandates and little to no coordination among agencies resulted in poor management, with our marine life and coastal communities suffering the consequences. Today the NOP is working to make ocean management more efficient and effective by coordinating agencies’ efforts, engaging other stakeholders in ocean management, and basing decision-making on sound science.

In the last two years, we’ve seen progress made to improve our ocean management:

  • Under the newly formed National Ocean Council, 27 representatives from the White House and various federal agencies—including the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, and Commerce, along with and EPA and NASA—are working together on their ocean-related efforts. The Council held a national stakeholder meeting to discuss some of their planned efforts last summer.
  • The Council has released its draft implementation plan, mapping out critical actions the federal government will take to improve the health of our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. The final ocean action plan is expected to be released soon.
  • Regional planning bodies are being formed so that states, federal agencies, and tribes have a venue to discuss and address ocean issues at the regional level. These efforts build off of the regional work that many states have already accomplished together.  A number of these state partnerships have received funding to move ahead with ocean protection projects.
  • The Council launched a national data portal as an easy point of entry to the various federal data sources that states need to map out their offshore ecosystems and ocean uses.

Despite this progress, we have a long way to go. To achieve all the benefits of the National Ocean Policy, we need our government to support its full implementation—to put these plans into action on the water. Unfortunately, some in Congress have sought to block such implementation.

Caught up in obstructionist politics, a contingent of House Republicans has tried repeatedly to defund the National Ocean Policy and block its implementation, as part of an ongoing string of attacks against bedrock environmental and public health protections. As outlined in a recent report from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, this lack of leadership is seriously harming the effectiveness of this common-sense ocean policy, which has been bipartisan from its very inception.

The future of our nation’s oceans must not fall prey to short-sighted partisan politics. If successful, these attacks would undermine the federal, state and local governments’ ability to coordinate on a wide range of important issues related to ocean resources nationwide – from government efforts to pick up trash that litters our beaches and waters, to protecting coastal communities from sea level rise, tracking ocean acidification, and responding to other threats to our magnificent coral reefs.

On its two-year birthday, it’s important to remember why we need a National Ocean Policy – to protect the wonders of our seas, safeguard ocean-related jobs, and improve efficiency in our government. This is a time to reaffirm its importance and to urge its prompt implementation. I hope that this time next year, Congress will be enthusiastically joining the party.

Join ocean explorer Philippe Cousteau to learn why we need responsible planning to protect our marine resources.