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Julie Packard

Julie Packard

Posted: June 29, 2009 05:33 PM

Obama's Big Blue Commitment


June has been a great month for everyone who loves the ocean and the amazing creatures that live there.

For the first time, the United Nations officially recognized June 8 as World Oceans Day. During that week, President Obama declared June to be National Oceans Month in the United States.

At a time when the oceans face unmatched peril, it's easy to dismiss these designations as mere window-dressing. But this time, symbolism was backed up by substance.

If you missed the story, you're not alone. Though the president made headlines for his speech in Cairo to the Muslim world and his high-profile efforts to reform health care, his bold plan to reshape the way we care for our planet's largest habitat went almost unnoticed.

When he proclaimed National Oceans Month, President Obama also created a high-level federal task force chaired by Nancy Sutley -- head of his Council on Environmental Quality -- to craft sweeping changes in how we manage our oceans. He gave them 180 days to report back with recommendations for a national ocean policy that provides better stewardship of our oceans and Great Lakes. The plan must coordinate the 18 federal agencies that currently govern our oceans and establish a planning framework to manage the growing number of competing uses for offshore waters.

This is big news for the oceans.

For five years, I and the other members of two national ocean commissions have been calling on the president and Congress to address the grave threats facing our oceans. Two months ago, the members of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative sent them a set of ambitious but achievable recommendations, including a call for a national ocean policy. The recommendations represent years of work and the best thinking of a diverse, bipartisan coalition committed to ocean policy reform. They offer specific, practical steps to protect and restore our oceans, improve human well-being, create national wealth and provide responsible stewardship of our resources.

By his action, President Obama has set the executive branch on course toward a new era of effective ocean management. In Congress, members of both parties are taking up the challenge as well.

But time is short.

Each day, we lose critical coastal habitat that supports the abundant marine life on which we depend for our livelihoods recreation and renewal. These dramatic changes, coupled with the growing threat of global climate change, can no longer be ignored. If we delay, we risk the survival of marine ecosystems and -- ultimately -- human well-being.

Consider one critical threat posed by climate change. As oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, they grow more acidic -- threatening the myriad organisms that are the basis of the ocean food web. Disruption of this system puts at risk the major source of protein for a billion people around the world, not to mention the tiny plankton that supply most of the oxygen we breathe.

Our communities and economy are in danger as well. Coastal watershed counties, where well over half our people live, contribute nearly 70% of the nation's gross domestic product. Ocean-dependent industries, such as fishing, shipping and offshore energy, generate $138 billion for the United States each year.

These contributions are at risk unless there is a fundamental shift in ocean management -- one that President Obama has just begun.

As executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, I've seen the power of ocean animals to motivate and inspire the public. And I've seen the capacity of the public to move from caring about to caring for our oceans, as thousands of people have helped create new marine protected areas and millions are choosing sustainable seafood.

We recently partnered with The Ocean Project and the National Aquarium to commission the largest national survey of environmental attitudes ever conducted. We heard from 22,000 people who shared their views on ocean issues, and learned that while Americans care about environmental quality, more of us need to include the oceans in our world view.

Our knowledge about the state of the ocean is still limited. We're more worried about the economy than about long-term ocean health, and we don't see the connection between the two. While climate change is a top public concern, people are largely unaware of how climate change affects the health of oceans.

Still, Americans say they want to protect the ocean and the environment. And -- in a significant shift from views expressed in a similar survey 10 years ago -- they believe their individual actions can make a difference.

They're ready to act -- but they're not sure what to do.

The president and Congress are showing the leadership that people want. Now we must all make every month Oceans Month and let our leaders know that we share their commitment.

Our future depends on it.

Follow Julie Packard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MontereyAq