06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why We Need A National Ocean Policy, Jane Lubchenco

Environmental scientist, marine ecologist and biologist, Jane Lubchenco was named administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in early 2009, the top political job in the country on ocean issues. She is using everything she has learned from her many days on the sea as a scientist and activist to try and shape a national ocean policy. Can politics really make a difference? An excerpt from our new book, companion to the DisneyNature release, "Oceans, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide."

Jon Bowermaster: Is it easy for you to name a highest priority?

Jane Lubchenco: There are multiple. One is definitely oceans, another is climate, and obviously they intersect with one another. Those are the focus of NOAA's responsibilities and are just so incredibly timely right now because of the importance of oceans and the importance of addressing climate change, both on the mitigation side as well as the adaptation side.

JB: Which is easier mitigation or adaptation?
JL: Well it's not an either/or, they are both incredibly important. I think that one way to think about them is: Mitigation is really about avoiding the unmanageable and adaptation is about managing the unavoidable.

JB: Are you having good success selling that theory?
JL: I think that there is still a lot of educating to be done. For far too long climate change has seemed like something that is so far down the road and so nebulous that it was difficult for people to understand why it mattered or how it might affect them, or what they could do about it.

JB: And really hard to illustrate to people.

JL: That's correct. NOAA was the lead agency in a report from the federal government last June, which focused on the impact of global climate change on the United States by region and by sector. It's an example of the kinds of things that are beginning to make a difference, where people can see that this is not something that is nebulous, something that affects only polar bears or islands of the Pacific and maybe somewhere far down the road, but that it's actually happening right now and in our own backyards and affecting the things that people care about. Fifty percent of Americans live in coastal areas and the other half of the country goes there to play. Nearly everyone eats fish. So what happens to the ocean impacts half of the population directly and everybody at least indirectly.

JB: Is a National Ocean Policy a priority, something you feel strongly about accomplishing while you're in this job?

JL: A very high priority, both for the administration as well as for NOAA. It is high time that the country declared clearly what it wants from and for oceans. The task force that President Obama set up, called the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, recognizes that we have a responsibility to protect our oceans and coasts and Great Lakes, both for current generations but also for future generations. The president made it very clear in the memorandum that set up the task force that one of its charges is to recommend a National Ocean Policy. In September we delivered an interim report to the president that sets recommendations for a National Ocean Policy and it sends a very clear signal that as far as the administration is concerned, healthy oceans matter and they matter because they are vital to our health, to our prosperity, to our security, and also to our ability to adapt to climate change. They matter because they affect the quality of our life. From that policy should flow a way in which we think differently about the variety of practices and policies on land and in the ocean that affect the health of the ocean. I think it's a fortuitous opportunity for the government to take stock of what's happening in the oceans, why it matters, and how we can begin to turn things around so that we can protect and restore them so that they can provide the wealth of benefits that we want and need from them.

JB: Do you think we'll actually see legislation titled 'National Ocean Policy' during this administration, during your term?

JL: There has been interest on the Hill in doing just that, going back to the aftermath of the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy issued in 2003. Clearly Congress has a lot on its plate right now but I truly believe it's a matter of when, not if.
The decision for the members of Congress now is more about strategy. Should it focus on one holistic law or start writing legislation piece by piece? There are currently different opinions about that, all quite legitimate.

JB: Is there a nation or a region in the world that has done a good job policing their ocean coastline?
JL: I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from a number of efforts including some by individual states. California, for example, has some very progressive legislation; a number of states, particularly Massachusetts and New Jersey, have been creating marine spatial planning philosophies that are beginning to think more holistically about the combination of activities that can co-exist in an area with the idea of minimizing conflict across different uses and minimizing impacts on the environment. Marine spatial planning is, in fact, one of the charges that the president gave to his ocean policy task force, to create a framework for doing coastal and marine spatial planning. Both across the federal agencies but in partnership with the states. That's the part of it that we are working on right now.

JB: Do you see a future where the U.S. coastline is dotted with marine reserves, off limits to all fishing?

JL: The science of marine reserves is pretty clear that they are very powerful tools to protect biodiversity. In many cases they can also help recover depleted fisheries and provide a source of fish or other species to repopulate adjacent areas. They are definitely one of the tools in our toolbox, a very important one ... but not the only one. They need to be considered as part of a more holistic strategy of what kinds of activities and what kinds of protection are needed in different areas of the ocean, different parts of the coastline.

JB: Historically around the world marine reserves - putting sections of the ocean off-limits to fishing - have often been established only after the fish are already gone. It's a tough sell to try and get people to set the sea aside in advance of it being depleted.
JL: True, that is often the case. There are a number of exceptions to that, but even areas that have been significantly degraded and have been set aside can often recover at least to some degree. But I think the real message from a lot of the scientific studies is that the healthier they are when you protect them, the more benefit there is. So that should be our goal.

JB: From a policymaker's perspective that's got to be a tough sell, convincing people to stop fishing a place they've always fished while there are still fish. I saw a documentary a few years ago about Scotland, where the coast had been so depleted that they'd actually held a lottery to decide which boats could continue to fish ... and which needed to be taken immediately to a yard and cut up. That was the only way they could come up with a way to lessen the pressure on their coastline.
JL: In many countries there is significant overcapitalization of the fishing fleet and that has been a challenge too, how to reduce too many boats chasing too few fish. The approach that we are taking is a different approach, which is to change the economics of fishing with a new tool called catch shares. Catch shares take a particular fishery and allocate shares of it, proportionate percentages of it, to either individuals or to communities. The idea is that the decisions about fishing now, at least the way the federal government regulates fishing now and the way most states do, is by controlling effort: You can fish so many days a year or you can catch a total limit for an individual. Which has turned out to be not very successful. In lieu of traditional management, catch shares is seen as an opportunity for fishermen to have a stake in the future, not just to fish intensely hard right now because if I don't get it, my competitor is going to get that last fish, which only encourages competition.

Catch shares is a mechanism for saying that each year you have 10 percent of the fishery to catch: ten percent this year, ten percent next year, ten percent the year after that. Therefore you have much greater incentive to make sure that the fishery is healthy, to make sure that each year the 10 percent represents more fish, and to make sure that others aren't cheating. Everyone needs to be accountable for stopping fishing when they reach ten percent, which changes everyone's perspective. Instead of the intense competition we have right now to catch the very last fish, this system enables fishermen to be more conservation-minded and to think long-term because they have a stake in the future. They stand to benefit if the value of their portfolio grows through time.

JB: There are several very specific threats endangering the ocean, ranging from acidification to pollution to over-fishing and the impacts of climate change. Do you see any one of those as being a worst concern or all they all kind of equal?
JL: Well, at the global scale, probably the one thing currently having the most impact is overfishing and destructive fishing gear. But of course climate change and ocean acidification interact and exacerbate all of those problems, whether it's overfishing, invasive species, nutrient pollution or toxins. I think it is inappropriate to focus on any single one because we really do need to address all of them which is part of the goal of marine spatial planning and of the National Ocean Policy, to start having a much more holistic approach to ensuring that we're protecting or restoring the health of oceans, instead of continuing along the path that we've had for far too long, which has been a sector by sector, issue by issue approach.

JB: Simply taking the ocean for granted has traditionally been our biggest problem, thinking of it as an infinite resource.

JL: Which continues to plague attempts to fix all of the problems. We have for so long thought of oceans as inexhaustible and impervious and endlessly resilient and that kind of thinking is at the root of all the ocean's problems.

JB: Congress has said it would like to see overfishing in U.S. waters ended by 2010. That's a big job; is it going to happen?

JL: Yes, the Magnussen-Stevens Act, when it was reauthorized in ____ requires us to end overfishing for most fisheries by 2010, which is next year. We are not on track to do that.

JB: How off track are we?

JL: Well, thirty-three percent of the 199 stock or stock complexes that NOAA oversees are overfished. We have a pretty good track record of rebuilding some stocks, having rebuilt fourteen stocks since 2001. Around the world estimates are that 70 percent of global fish stocks are overexploited or depleted. So we are definitely not on track and that's one of the reasons that NOAA is encouraging the fishery management council to consider catch shares as a management tool that, by scientific analyses, have a much better track record of ensuring sustainable fisheries compared to traditional fishery management.

JB: You've been in this job since March 2009. You've now worked at all levels of the marine world, as a scientist, as an activist, and now as a policy shaper. Where exactly does policy fit in? Is it the most important piece of the puzzle right now? More than science, more than environmental activism?
JL: Policies and regulations are incredibly important, but so too is the understanding that people have and the ethics that we bring to our actions. So educating the public about both the problems and solutions, providing both a sense of urgency and of hope, are both incredibly important.

JB: When you're out on the road, or on the sea, and you meet people who ask about the health of the world's ocean, what do you advise people to do on an individual basis?

JL: There are a few really simple things: People can choose to eat or buy only sustainably caught or sustainably farmed seafood. People can become more knowledgeable and active in organizations that promote wide use of oceans. People can let their elected representatives know how important healthy oceans are to them. People can reduce their use of energy and be more energy efficient, people can be more cognizant of a lot of the plastics and excess packaging that we generate, because they often end up in oceans.

JB: Which all seem very straightforward and simple. But getting people to first hear and then to practice it in their daily lives a big job.

JL: It is.

JB: To that end, are you mostly optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the ocean?'

JL: I see the urgency of many of these issues and it seems like a pretty heavy lift. At the same time, I know that social attitudes are often changed very, very rapidly when they reach a tipping point. And much of what we do at NOAA in terms of education and promoting good tools and good practices is designed to help us get to those tipping points, where there is greater awareness and greater willingness to be good stewards. I also am hopeful because I've seen many young people engaged in these issues. I've seen many members of the business community stepping up to the plate and saying, we have a corporate responsibility to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem. And I see more and more faith-based groups being interested and engaged in climate change in ocean issues. So for all those reasons -- the tipping point, the young people, the business community, the faith-based communities -- I think that there is reason to be hopeful but there is a lot yet to be done.

JB: On what percentage of days would you rather be out on the sea versus headed towards another Washington meeting?
JL: On any given day if given a choice, I would rather be out on the water or in the water. But that's not my job right now, my job is to help bring a scientific organization, a scientific agency that has great credibility and great capacity, to enable it to address many of these issues in partnership with the rest of the federal agencies that are relevant, in partnership with Congress, in partnership with the states and individuals. It's a job I'm actually enjoying a lot. I think there are great opportunities at such a critical time and I think it's important to be part of what's happening and help shape it.