WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's Ocean Policy Council is calling for a coordinated approach to restoring fragile ocean areas, many of which have been damaged by decades of piecemeal management decisions by the federal government.
According to Larry Crowder, a professor of marine biology at Duke University, dividing ocean management among multiple agencies has taken a heavy toll on marine ecosystems and economies. "There were 20 different federal ocean science agencies trying to enforce 140 different ocean laws."
Comparing the work of ocean agencies to that of doctors evaluating patients, Crowder said that collaboration is essential. "We need to get all of the ocean specialists in the same room before we can ask: How are we going to treat Long Island Sound?"
The administration's Ocean Policy Council will unite a variety of interests as it works to finalize recommendations for a new ocean management plan by Dec. 9.
The Ocean Policy Task Force released an interim report on Sept. 10, saying the new approach must take into account "environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other environmental change, social justice, foreign policy, and national and homeland security."
In the past, laws have been passed one at a time to address individual issues in U.S.-controlled waters, from regulating scallop fisheries to protecting the feeding grounds for endangered whales.
For example, although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sets aside fragile areas such as Monterey Bay in California and the Florida Keys for special protection through the National Marine Sanctuaries program, their jurisdiction is only within sanctuary boundaries. "There is no control over downstream affects," Crowder said.
To complicate matters, added Sylvia Earle, a former chief scientist at NOAA, the agency that monitors marine sanctuaries also heads the National Marine Fisheries Service. While the official purpose of the fisheries service is "to promote sustainable fisheries, recovery of protected species, and the health of coastal marine habitats," Earle described it as "about killing and marketing fish."
Although she acknowledged that sanctuaries have expanded to encompass more than 150,000 square miles, Earle said the term "sanctuary" is slightly misleading. "They're management areas."
She said NOAA's current administrator, Jane Lubchenco, has championed fully protected ocean reserves, for the sake of both marine life and economic prosperity. "It's not only good for the fish," Earle said. "If there are to be fishermen, there have to be fish."
Crowder agreed that the Obama administration has said that protecting species is the first priority. Under the "marine spatial planning" approach, all ocean agencies that have activities in a certain area from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Ontario would collaborate on regulations that support investment and commerce, but also protect species.
However, disparities in international compliance have made protecting species more complicated. "Animals do not know about lines on maps," Crowder said.
While countries such as Germany and Belgium have crafted sound management practices, other nations continue to hunt species that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, or practice unsustainable fishing. In Mexico, for example, tuna "fishermen" drop nets as large as football fields from helicopters, snagging dolphins and sea turtles.
To set a precedent, the U.S. must first address how it regulates its own waters, especially given the challenges presented by climate change.
This summer the polar ice cap melted to its third smallest recorded size, and Crowder pointed out that more vessels are seeking passage through the Arctic Ocean. In a sense, he said, "A new ocean is opening up."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Macdonald, a graduate student from Boston, covers the environment and natural resources.)
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