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Trump’s new oceans policy washes away Obama’s emphasis on conservation and climate

Marine conservation and addressing climate change are out. Jobs and national security are in.

That’s just one message sent by a new executive order detailing a revised U.S. oceans policy released today by President Donald Trump. The order formally revokes the 2010 oceans policy issued by then-President Barack Obama, and replaces it with a markedly different template for what the government should focus on in managing the nation’s oceans, coastal waters, and Great Lakes.

Some changes in emphasis are sweeping. The Trump order deletes a preamble to the Obama policy that emphasized “how vulnerable our marine environments are,” called for improving the nation’s “capacity to respond to climate change and ocean acidification,” and stressed the need for “a national policy to ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems.” It also drops the Obama order’s references to “social justice,” “biological diversity,” and “conservation.” 

Instead, the Trump order stresses economic and security concerns. U.S. waters “are foundational to the economy, security, global competitiveness, and well-being of the United States,” the order begins. “Ocean industries employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy. Domestic energy production from Federal waters strengthens the Nation's security and reduces reliance on imported energy.”

Specific priorities are also very different. In the Obama order, top items on a list of 10 policies included the need to “protect, maintain, and restore the health and biological diversity” and boost “conservation and sustainable uses” of resources, and using “the best available science and knowledge to inform” management decisions and “understand, respond, and adapt to a changing global environment.” 

Those ideas are essentially absent from Trump’s list of seven ocean policy priorities. It first calls for federal agencies to coordinate on providing “economic, security, and environmental benefits for present and future generations of Americans,” and then highlights the need to “promote the lawful use of the ocean by agencies, including [the] United States Armed Forces.” It also says the government should work to “facilitate the economic growth of coastal communities and promote ocean industries,” “advance ocean science and technology,” “enhance America's energy security,” and ensure that “Federal regulations and management decisions do not prevent productive and sustainable use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters.”

The new order also largely downplays an Obama administration emphasis on creating robust data collections that could help managers make decisions, and on encouraging state and federal agencies to collaborate on plans that would guide marine development, conservation, and other activities. Under Obama, such planning efforts drew fierce opposition from some federal lawmakers and state officials. But two regions—northeastern and mid-Atlantic states—have adopted plans. And the new order should allow those efforts to continue if the partners agree, says Whit Saumweber, an independent consultant in Washington, D.C., who helped shape ocean policy in the Obama White House. But he worries that without robust support from the Trump administration, new marine planning collaborations won’t occur and existing plans could falter. “I expect agencies will be reticent to put a priority on those things” under this order, he says.

In a statement, the White House said: “President Trump is rolling back excessive bureaucracy created by the previous Administration. The new order reorganizes the National Ocean Council, eliminates some regional planning bodies, and creates a new streamlined Ocean Policy Committee [that] will have a Subcommittee for Science and Technology and a Subcommittee for Resource Management.

Representative Rob Bishop (R–UT), chairman of the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, welcomed the shift. The order “repealing and replacing the bureaucratic, overreaching policy created under the previous administration puts our country’s ocean policy back on the right track,” he said in a statement. The policy “will help the health of our oceans and ensure local communities impacted by ocean policy have a seat at the table.”

Overall, the new executive order comes as only a mild surprise to ocean policy watchers. “Trump has made dismantling anything Obama did a priority, and this order is consistent with that and his ‘America first’ rhetoric,” says a congressional aide who is not authorized to speak on the record. It is not clear how much immediate impact the policy change will have, he says, but he believes that in the long term it will influence how agencies approach decisions.

One author of the Obama oceans policy is disappointed. The Trump policy “represents a significant step backward, a throwback to the 1960s when the primary focus was on aggressively expanding the use of the ocean with the assumption that it is so immense, so bountiful that it must be inexhaustible,” marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, who led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Obama, tells ScienceInsider. “We learned through painful experience that the ocean is indeed exhaustible, but we also learned that if we are smart about how we use the ocean, it can provide a wealth of benefits for decades and decades.”

Obama’s policy had emphasized “stewardship,” she notes—a word not used in the new order. Trump “blatantly rejects this all-important focus on stewardship,” Lubchenco says. “Put another way, the policy reflects a shift from ‘use it without using it up’ to a very short-sighted and cavalier ‘use it aggressively and irresponsibly.’”

*Update, 20 June, 10:50 a.m.: This story has been updated with statements from the White House and others.