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President To Make Environmental History With National Ocean Policy

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According to press reports, today will go down in environmental history for landmark progress toward ocean protection. In my 36 years of environmental policy work, there are few moments in my book that rise to today’s level of importance.

We have the Clean Water Act for our water and the Clean Air Act for our air. Finally, we will now have a bedrock environmental policy like this for our oceans.

President Obama, who hails from the ocean state of Hawaii and the Great Lakes state of Illinois, is expected to announce a revamping ofthe way we protect our oceans. This is something ocean advocates like me have been working toward for years.

This national ocean policy would coordinate efforts to reduce pollution and protect marine life, so that beaches are clean and fish and wildlife abundant. It will help federal agencies better protect, maintain and restore ocean ecosystems, and it establishes a National Ocean Council to help oversee the policy’s implementation, including the development of specific action plans to address priority issues.

Thanks to this new policy, the more than 20 different federal agencies that oversee activities affecting the sea (which are are governed by more than 140 laws), will now have to coordinate their efforts to ensure protection of the oceans. If you ask, I’d bet most Americans understandably think a basic policy like this already exists – just as so many believed companies knew how to safely drill off our shores. But it didn’t – until today.

And this new policy is more important now than ever. On top of the catastrophe in the Gulf and traditional stresses on our seas – like nutrient pollution, overfishing and unwise coastal development – today we are facing new, daunting challenges. Increased carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere are making the waters more acidic, threatening serious implications for the entire ocean food chain, including commercially important seafood. And just like a healthy person is better able to handle an illness, a healthy ocean is better able to withstand additional stress. With better management, comes healthier ocean life. This policy is the prescription America’s seas need to withstand the challenges, old and new, that they face.

This national ocean policy is important not just from an environmental standpoint but from an economic standpoint. The U.S. ocean economy provides more jobs and more economic output than the entire farm sector. A majority of this value is attributable to tourism and recreation, which in 2004 contributed more than $116 billion to the nation’s GDP and was responsible for more than 2 million jobs.  As the disaster in the Gulf has illustrated all too clearly, this economy depends to a significant degree on clean water and abundant fish and wildlife. America’s ocean industry needs the kind of security a healthy ocean policy can provide. Protecting our oceans means protecting money and jobs nationwide.

As our country tries to ensure an environmental and economic tragedy like the Gulf oil disaster never happens again, we must move toward a clean energy economy. As we look to renewable American power sources that can’t spill or run out – like offshore wind – this new policy will prove all the more important. It provides the tools we need to get clean, offshore energy up and running – while at the same time making sure we protect the ocean environment.

And though the timing of this policy is proving critical, it has actually been in the works for more than a year. A presidentially appointed taskforce of senior representatives from the different federal agencies with ocean responsibilities made initial recommendations for what this policy should look like. Their recommendations followed an inclusive and transparent process that included extensive input from stakeholders, experts and public hearings around the country. In fact, the taskforce’s draft recommendations received extensive comments from the public, all levels of government, business interests, the fishing community and conservation groups, and makes sure the federal agencies are working with coastal states to build on existing efforts at protection.

In sum – this policy is desperately needed. President Obama is charting the course for healthy American seas and a healthy American ocean economy.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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