More Poor Grades For America’s Ocean Policy

by Kiley Kroh

It’s no secret the world’s oceans are in peril. Oceans are warming and becoming increasingly acidic. Overfishing threatens global fish populations. Sea-level rise is poised to swamp major population centers. And pollution — from oil spills and nutrient runoff to plastic water bottles to tsunami debris — continues to plague even the most remote locations.

So, how does the U.S. measure up in combatting these dangers and sustaining the economic and environmental health of our oceans and coasts?

Yesterday, the nonpartisan Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, or JOCI, released its U.S. Ocean Policy Report Card 2012 assessing the nation’s progress in implementing the National Ocean Policy. Similar to JOCI’s past report cards and recent report cards from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, the worst grades were saved for Congress.

In fact, removing the lone bright grade of an A- for state and regional efforts, the federal government accumulates a miserable GPA of 0.86.

This year’s report card focuses on development and implementation of President Obama’s National Ocean Policy, a concept that is neither new nor partisan. The concept first emerged at the National Ocean Conference in 1998 and passage of the Oceans Act in 2000 during the Clinton Administration. The policy was a cornerstone recommendation of both the independent Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, whose members were appointed by President George W. Bush.

Still, the path toward implementation of the National Ocean Policy has been impeded by inadequate funding and repeated attacks from Congressional Republicans. The policy, which is designed to streamline management of our oceans and coasts and enhance government efficiency, is now being characterized as an overreach that would spawn “job-killing regulations.”

Far from the paranoid delusions of its detractors, the National Ocean Policy is a critical step toward protecting our oceans and enhancing America’s national security and economic prosperity. As John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress and Joint Ocean Commission Initiative Leadership Council member explained, “When fully implemented, this bipartisan policy will pave the way for investment in sensible development and economic growth and protect some of our treasured natural resources.”

Commerce Secretary John Bryson echoed that sentiment yesterday in a speech to kick off Capitol Hill Oceans Week, saying the nation’s “blue economy” — driven by healthy oceans, coasts, and the Great Lakes — plays a “key role” in broader U.S. economic recovery and needs greater support.

While praising the Administration for taking important steps forward, the JOCI report card issued a C for national support and leadership on ocean management, an F for the Senate’s failure to join the call for ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, and a D- for the lack of federal funding to fully implement this critical national policy.

In addition to slashing funding for key ocean and coastal management programs, Congress has failed to enact a single piece of legislation to catalyze the economic and environmental recovery of the Gulf Coast, raise the two decade old liability limit for oil companies in violation of drilling safety rules, or to strengthen offshore drilling safety standards.

One bright spot in JOCI’s assessment, however, is the work being done outside of the halls of Congress. Initiatives undertaken in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Washington, and other states have prioritized comprehensive ocean planning, streamlined government bureaucracy, and facilitated private sector investment — precisely the kind of solutions conservatives in Congress claim to support.

The report acknowledges incremental progress at the federal level as well. Bet much more needs to be done to preserve our oceans and the life they support, both in and out of the water. As prominent marine scientist Callum Roberts suggests in his new book, The Ocean of Life, only a concerted effort to rebuild the oceans and protect the invaluable services they provide can avoid total calamity.

“If we’re to avoid the most disastrous of foreseeable futures, we must use every means at our disposal to lower stress and boost the abundance and variety of life in the sea. It could just buy nature enough time for us to stabilize our own population, transition to energy sources other than fossil fuels, and to find ways of living within the limits of a finite planet.”

Fully funding and implementing the National Ocean Policy would constitute a significant step toward the effort Roberts urges.

“Defunding important programs and throwing up roadblocks harms ocean industries, costs American jobs, and entrenches inefficient federal bureaucracy,” added Podesta.

It’s clear where the work remains to be done. The only question remaining is whether Congress is willing to get out of the way.

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director of Ocean Communications at the Center for American Progress.