THE BLOG
07/20/2011 10:09 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2011

President Obama Should Fulfill His Ocean Promise

Tuesday July 19 marked the first anniversary of President Obama signing an Executive Order establishing the first ever National Ocean Policy for the United States to protect our public seas and the jobs and communities that depend on their health. So where are we one year out?

A recent report issued by the International Program on the State of the Ocean concluded that our seas "are at high risk for entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history." This ecosystem collapse is linked to human activities including industrial overfishing and fossil fuel fired climate change. It's all part of the 6th great extinction in planetary history. The last mass extinction was caused by a meteor 60 million years ago.

I have to admit it's depressing that the best available science keeps projecting the worst imaginable scenarios. More frustrating is that we know what the solutions are but haven't mobilized the political will to enact them. Still, if we don't try, we lose. That's why many marine conservation groups are hard at work trying to get the feds to implement a new U.S. ocean policy based on ecosystem protection. The policy is moving forward but at a (pre-climate change) glacial pace.

Given the crisis in our seas it would be nice to see some bold steps taken to begin managing our public seas in a more unified manner than the present system under which 24 federal agencies operate under 140 separate laws with little or no coordination among them or with local, state and tribal governments.

Instead of high-profile action, the Ppesident's National Ocean Council, established after he signed his ocean policy a year ago, held a dozen Listening Sessions around the country last month from D.C. to Hawaii to review 9 draft 'Strategic Action Plans,' around issues such as the changing Arctic, water quality, ocean acidification and ocean mapping, some of whose implementation dates have been rolled back from 2015 to 2020.

Hundreds of people turned out to the sessions just as they had in their thousands in 2009 to ask an earlier Ocean Policy Taskforce to encourage the President to create a new approach to how we treat our seas, which he did, on paper, signing his executive order right after the runaway deepwater well was capped during the BP oil spill disaster last summer. But we have yet to see his policy being used as a management tool in the water. "If not now, when?" asked Admiral Thad Allen (USCG Ret.) the man in charge of the BP response and an active player in the ocean policy formulation, at the marine conservation community's Blue Vision Summit in Washington D.C. this past May.

The great majority of testimony at June's listening sessions was also supportive of swift action with broad representation from different marine stakeholders not just conservationists. Pride in local and regional collaborative efforts already underway to protect and restore the health of the ocean and Great Lakes was also a major theme put forward by people involved with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean, Northeast Regional Ocean Council, West Coast Governors Agreement, Great Lakes Initiative and others.

Those who spoke at the meetings included Governor Abercrombie of Hawaii, California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and Congress members Pallone of New Jersey, Schrader of Oregon and Dicks of Washington.

One other consistent theme was people saying they didn't want plans to create more plans; they wanted to see coordinated action in the near term to improve ocean health and make sure competing ocean interests are well managed and supported in ways that protect both the ecosystem and coastal economies. California officials strongly recommended some short-term federal pilot projects be initiated in cooperation with efforts already underway in their state waters.

The administration argues that they can't move forward without congressional funding at the $20 million dollar level to support the ocean council's work (that's right, millions not billions for America's largest territory. Talk about cost effective!). Some House Republicans claim that common sense planning for our vast public seas is "irrational zoning" that will destroy jobs, refusing to support any initiative that's been signed off on by the President.

The result has become more political paralysis in the face of another real world crisis. When I attended the Ocean Council's San Francisco meeting with upwards of 200 other folks I heard a top official from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say that after they review all the public input and write up their final strategic plans early in 2012 they will... hold another round of listening sessions.

Well, listen to this: People who care about the ocean are demanding bipartisan agreement and action, starting with our bodysurfing president. They need to stop timing our ocean policies to election cycles and help save what's left of the blue in our red, white and blue.