06/21/2010 12:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Decisive Days for Our Oceans

There's nothing good to say about the Gulf oil catastrophe, except this: it has focused national attention on the health of our oceans as never before. In the midst of this human and ecological tragedy, we have the opportunity to come to our senses and to do the right thing on behalf of our oceans that sustain us in so many ways.

As a native Californian, images of the Gulf spill hold a special meaning for me. In 1969, a blowout on a drilling platform in the Santa Barbara Channel released more than 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The spill coated a stretch of our California coastline in thick sludge. It killed thousands of seabirds, and who knows how much other wildlife.

I remember that day well. For the first time, I realized that something I had taken for granted could be taken away. And, if this happened, I'd only have myself to blame.

That dark day served as a wake-up call to the nation about the fragile nature of our environment, and its importance to the well-being of all life on Earth. The spill helped catalyze the biggest environmental movement our country has ever seen, compelling lawmakers to enact scores of landmark environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act. Today, these laws form the foundation of our system of environmental protection. It's hard to imagine where we'd be without them.

Forty years after the environmental movement began, it's time for a rebirth. Now is the time to usher in a new era of conservation.

In early June, I was in Washington, D.C. for Capitol Hill Ocean Week -- an annual series of events that puts a spotlight on ocean issues. It was surreal to be talking about healthy oceans while the daily news brought more reports of devastation for wildlife and fragile Gulf habitats, and ever-larger estimates of the size of the spill.

But I left both energized and hopeful. As I met with leaders of Congress and the Administration, there was unanimous and bipartisan agreement that it's time to take meaningful steps to protect our oceans and coastal communities. I'm optimistic that real reform is finally within reach.

It's taken a long time -- and an epic disaster -- to reach this point. Critical policy recommendations have languished for a decade since they were proposed by the Pew Oceans Commission on which I served. I believe we can win approval in 2010 for the most urgent reforms, even from a divided Congress in an election year.

I hope these reforms will be based on some core ideas:

-- Create an Ocean Investment Fund and use revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing to protect the living resources that are put at risk by drilling operations. We've done this in California, and it's time to take a similar approach nationally.

-- Commit to a green energy future, and the green jobs that will follow, rather than drill for offshore oil in the Arctic and the deep ocean, where -- as we've learned -- the risks are too great and there's no possibility of avoiding negative impacts from a spill. The President and Congress are on track to adopt a clean energy bill. Now they should finish the job.

-- Invest in science, so we'll know what's at risk in the deep ocean and how to protect marine life from the next spill. When my father founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute 20 years ago, he was appalled at the state of our investment in technology to explore and understand the deep sea. That need continues, so we can have the information to implement effective ecosystem-based management and restoration of our oceans.

-- Issue an Executive Order articulating our first national ocean policy, revamping how we manage and protect our ocean resources. A year ago, President Obama announced plans for such reforms. They must be a key part of our response to the disaster in the Gulf.

It won't be easy, even now. But, by working together, we can succeed. That means staying connected with ocean conservation organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, letting your elected representatives know that these are important issues, and encouraging friends and family to join with you.

This is a decisive moment for our oceans -- if we seize it. Let's focus on doing a few really important things for their future, with the opportunity we have before us right now.

Together, we can make a difference.