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Why Not a Department of the Ocean?

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President Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force is supposed to come up with a (first ever) national ocean policy by the end of 2009 that will assure, "healthy, resilient, and sustainable oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes resources for the benefit of this and future generations." That's a tall order given the cascading series of disasters presently threatening our public seas including industrial overfishing for the global seafood market, nutrient, oil, chemical and plastic pollution, coastal sprawl and fossil-fuel fired climate change. Instead of a comprehensive response from our government we have 20 federal agencies (and almost as many Congressional Committees) managing ocean resources under 140 different laws that, along with state, tribal and local authorities, have left those seeking solutions drowning in red tape.

In September the Task Force's interim report recommended the establishment of a White House Ocean Council to oversee and coordinate federal activities on our public seas. Personally I'd shoot for the whole barrel of fish -- a Department of the Ocean made up of the U.S. Coast Guard on the operational side and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for policy, resource management and science. It's not my idea. It was recommended by major blue ribbon commissions in 1969 and again in 2003, but rejected by policy makers with other priorities (Highways and Homeland Security).

In 1849 the Department of Interior was established to oversee the internal development of the nation as it expanded across our western terrestrial frontier. Though we went on to destroy many of the West's natural wonders and indigenous cultures we also established a system of public lands and National Parks that more than a century and a half later remain a world model for environmental stewardship.

A Department of the Ocean would reflect the scale of our newest and most challenging frontier, the 3.4 million square nautical miles of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that stretches 200 miles out from our shorelines, a saltwater domain six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase that is also part of a 230 billion dollar ocean economy now larger than the nation's farm economy (take that Dept. of Ag).

The Ocean Department's components would logically include the U.S. Coast Guard, a multi-mission maritime agency that functions as both a military and law-enforcement service operating at sea every day of the year to assure Americans' Safety, Security and Stewardship. It proved its capability in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when it rescued over 33,000 people while the rest of the federal government failed to act. It also coordinated the evacuation of half a million New Yorkers by water after the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard, with its 42,000 active service members and 8,000 reservists, has been an under-funded institutional orphan in Washington for most of its 219 years of existence and, since 2003, has been docked at the Department of Homeland Security, where its operated as a big fish in a dysfunctional pond.

While the Coast Guard is the guardian of our public seas the 12,500 strong NOAA is the lead civilian agency responsible for science-based research and ocean activities including management of commercial fisheries and other living resources. Unfortunately, it has historically failed to meet its conservation missions, in large measure as a result of its location, sunk deep in the trade driven, business-friendly Department of Commerce. Under the new leadership of marine ecologist Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA has begun to change course initiating policies to protect our seas.

But change needs to be accelerated. Our ocean crisis is both dire and directly linked to the crisis of our economy and of our climate. Creating a Department of the Ocean incorporating the Coast Guard, NOAA, and some marine policy shops from the State Department and elsewhere might be just the kind of bold action that could take the President's Ocean Policy initiative into the mainstream of public life by giving added value to the blue in our red, white and blue. It may not be what this administration needs right now as it deals with health care, two extended wars, the upcoming Climate Summit in Copenhagen and other challenges, but it's what would best serve the public interest.

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