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A Sea Change in Ocean Policy Promised

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

A phalanx of high-level federal officials marched into San Francisco today to announce a major shift in the way the federal government oversees the oceans.

The top-level administrators from the White House and several agencies held a public meeting to launch efforts toward a first-ever National Ocean Policy, in which they say restoring a healthy ecosystem will be a top priority.

The newly formed Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is led by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and one of President Obama’s top advisors on the environment. She arrived surrounded by representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), EPA, Navy, Coast Guard and Dept. of Interior (which, odd as it sounds, is responsible for vast tracts on the outer continental shelf).

Asked why we’re just getting around to a unified national ocean policy, Sutley said that “Too often the federal government sits in its stovepipes,” with each agency taking a narrow view. This effort is an attempt to break through traditional parochialism in favor of a more holistic approach to the challenges.

Task force member Jane Lubchenco, who heads NOAA, said that for the first time, policy makers are saying loudly that “healthy oceans matter.” And right now, she says, they’re not real healthy.

“At a global scale, I would say that oceans are in critical condition,” said Lubchenco. ” Most people are unaware of how much disruption and depletion has occurred within the oceans. We’re seeing the symptoms of much of that. It’s time to get on with the solutions.”

The task force will address a growing array of concerns, from shrinking fisheries to higher acid levels in the ocean—many of which are likely related to climate change.

Lubchenco, who is also an Undersecretary of Commerce, told me that “Climate change is exacerbating many of the existing challenges for ocean uses. There’s very good evidence that climate change is already having very significant impacts on oceans.” Lubchenco also cited “the related problem of ocean acidification,” and reeled off a laundry list of  climate impacts, including “loss of biological diversity, increasing transport of invasive species, nutrient pollution, habitat loss, and over-fishing.”

Lubchenco added “That sum total of stresses on ocean ecosystems means that we need to be taking new approaches.” The most sweeping of those “new approaches” will be “ecosystem-based management,” a term used repeatedly in the Interim Report issued by the task force this month.

According to the report:

“The implementation of ecosystem-based management embodies a fundamental shift in how the United States manages these resources, and provides a foundation for how the remaining objectives would be implemented…It would provide the opportunity to ensure proactive and holistic approaches to balance the use and conservation of these valuable resources. This broad-based application of ecosystem-based management would provide a framework for the management of our resources, and allow for such benefits as helping to restore fish populations, control invasive species, support healthy coastal communities and ecosystems, restore sensitive species and habitats, protect human health, and rationally allow for emerging uses of the ocean, including new energy production.”

The task force will also be taking its own stab at some long-term solutions for the troubled Sacramento River Delta. The interim report is open for public comment until October 10.