Obama's Oceans Policy Emphasizes Science

The White House has unveiled its overall approach for improving ocean planning. In a report released 14 December, the Ocean Policy Task Force sketched out how nine new regional organizations would create master plans for federal waters by drawing on a massive database of scientific information. The idea is that better coordinated and more comprehensive plans would improve ocean health while also making regulation more efficient for industry.

Many federal agencies oversee activities in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, which extends to 200 nautical miles offshore—an area 20% larger than the country’s land mass. Common uses include shipping, fishing, and drilling for oil and gas; aquaculture and wind farms are expected to increase substantially. Sometimes conflict erupts between agencies with incompatible missions—protecting endangered species versus military training, for example—and often there’s poor communication about the activities that agencies are undertaking or for which they’re granting permits. The ocean “would be much healthier in the long run, if there was a lot more federal coordination,” says Bruce Stedman of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama created the task force in June to come up with solutions. In September, it released a draft National Ocean Policy emphasizing protection of the oceans and recommended that a new National Ocean Council (NOC) be formed to implement the policy and improve planning.

The new report lays out how regional planning bodies would develop and implement so-called “marine spatial plans” using an ecosystem-based approach that considers cumulative impacts. Nancy Sutley, who chairs the task force and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said at a press conference yesterday that all the regional bodies should have the planning process in place within 5 years. NOC would review these plans and also try to resolve disputes between users.

Comprehensive plans will require a lot of data, such as the habitat of endangered species, the location of oil deposits, and strength of winds. The task force envisions that one federal agency will create and maintain a database with information from other agencies. That won’t be easy. “We know there are data gaps and need for additional research,” Sutley said. NOC would set up ways to prioritize those needs, as well as guidance on tasks like identifying which areas are of high ecological value.

But NOC won’t be spending money to help the process. The report is candid about the scarcity of new funds and says that agencies will have to reevaluate how they allocate their resources. The report will be available for public comment for 60 days. NOC has yet to be created by executive order, which is expected to happen early next year.

Photo Credit: NOAA