Portland, Oregon - Surfers, fishers and environmentalists don't tend to spend their summers crowded into dark conference rooms. But this year, they wanted a say in creating the United States' first national ocean policy.
The emerging policy follows the recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force President Obama created in 2009.
The task force found that while "demands for energy development, shipping, aquaculture, emerging security requirements and other new and existing uses are expected to grow" along with environmental challenges, ocean policy is frequently hemmed in by a "sector-by-sector, statute by statute" approach to management that doesn't account for now-well-established scientific knowledge about the interdependence of land, sea and air environments. Obama's 2011 budget includes requests to fund the more comprehensive, integrated new policy, including $12 million for a massive marine spatial planning program, $20 million in regional partnership grants and $5 million to study ecosystems.
"The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and resulting environmental crisis is a stark reminder of how vulnerable our marine environments are, and how much communities and the Nation rely on healthy and resilient ocean and coastal ecosystems," said Obama in the executive order that set the new policy in motion in July 2010. Until now, the United States has relied on what consumer watchdog Food and Water Watch (FWW) has called "ad-hoc, fragmented oceans management." An acronym soup of federal, state, tribal, and local agencies operate with limited coordination while climate change accelerates, fisheries decline, and demand for alternative energy such as wave farms surges. The new National Ocean Council (NOC) is billed as the first step in coordinating their efforts. It includes members from 27 federal agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Department of Homeland Security. Its plan of action is as vast as its subject, taking on everything from ocean acidification to a massive data collection project.
Beginning in June, NOC officials got an earful from stakeholders at public meetings in 12 cities. At the last and largest in Portland, Oregon, on July 1, NOC member and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head Jane Lubchenco said the new framework calls for, "regionally based, bottom-up decisionmaking," rather than top-down dictates, but critics remain skeptical.
"Even though the agencies are largely deferential to the states, I can't imagine the states nominating someone controversial," said Zach Corrigan, FWW's fish policy director. While FWW did not have a presence at the meetings, it submitted comments to the NOC in a lengthy letter in April. FWW criticized the "closed-door nature of fisheries management decision-making" and the removal of southeast fisheries management official Kate Merritt despite the protest of North Carolina's governor and many fishermen in the region.
"While there was no stated reason,"said FWW, "many have speculated it was due to Merritt's resistance to the Administration's interest in pushing for catch shares." Catch shares programs, sometimes called "catch and trade," allocate catch limits as tradable shares based on a fisher's previous years' catches. While billed as a solution to overfishing, the program has drawn fire, and lawsuits, from those who call it a privatization scheme, including small fishing operations that have been forced out of business.
While much of the NOC's agenda focuses on conservation measures, "in some of the other documents that [the Obama administration] put out, it becomes clear they're angling toward more offshore fish farming and more catch shares programs," said Corrigan. In its letter, FWW said that ocean aquaculture, if allowed to expand, will outcompete traditional fishing operations and spread disease from farmed to wild fish.
Despite criticisms, the new communication networks the NOC says it plans to form among the slew of existing agencies could be a welcome dose of logic for the country's ecosystems, where government boundaries mean little.
"The salmon are telling us that the mountains, the valleys, the ocean and the plains are all sick," said Leo Stewart, interim chair of the Umatilla Indian tribe. (While many salmon species are threatened or endangered, the fish remains at the center of both diet and religion for many Pacific Northwest tribes.) A more comprehensive stewardship framework could address what appear on the surface to be land issues, such as timber harvesting that unshades rivers on salmon migration routes, making the water dangerously hot for the cold-loving fish on their way out to sea or back to their spawning grounds. These linkages are frequently overlooked by the current system, which inspires more than a few territorial battles. "Your territory means nothing if, in the end, you don't have any resources," said Tom Younker of the Coquille tribe.
The scale of economic resources at stake is considerable. According to the trade group Environmental Entrepreneurs, the ocean economy accounts for more of GDP than the entire farm sector, and the National Marine Fisheries Service counted 500,000 jobs and $82 billion in sales from the recreational fishing industry in 2006. Labor and industry groups had a strong presence at the Portland meeting, and they have plenty of political support. NOC member and Washington Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-San Juan Island) stressed the importance of a "blue-green agenda" that links strong economies with healthy environments, especially as the recession prompts deep service cuts. "If it's the environment versus kids or seniors, the environment loses," said Ranker.
The blue-green balance is not always an easy one to strike. Part of the policy's plan includes an ambitious marine zoning initiative, known as coastal and marine spatial planning, or CMSP, that will affect where oil and gas companies as well as alternative energy outfits can operate. FWW spoke up on this point as well: "There is concern that CMSP will be used to zone exclusive access to a few lucky businesses, to the detriment of our natural resources and the public." Supporters of the program point out that nine as-yet-unestablished regional bodies, not the federal agencies, will be in charge of implementation, but doubts about government's relationship with big energy may not be erased that easily in light of the Gulf spill aftermath. Still, John Stein, science and research director at NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) Northwest Fisheries Science Center, thinks the new collaborative framework has promise.
"If you have everybody at the table," said Stein, "you can't have these backroom deals."
For now, one of the biggest obstacles to a new ocean policy - which won't be finalized until 2012 - may be the federal budget crisis. "If the expectation is that we're bringing in big wheelbarrows of gold, that's not happening," said NMFS's Northwest Regional Administrator Will Stelle. Someone from the audience stood up later to say her organization would be content with half a wheelbarrow.
No one laughed.