Single ocean policy a tall order


POSTED: Monday, September 21, 2009

Four months after issuing a comprehensive analysis of global climate change, the Obama administration is proposing a broad plan for regulating federal waters now administered by numerous federal, state and other agencies. Coordination is badly needed but will be difficult to achieve among agencies with different agendas and interest forces.

The White House report in June foresaw “;enormous effects”; on Pacific Island communities from rising sea levels and threats to already vulnerable species in the Pacific Ocean. That report and Thursday's interim report by the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force indicate the high priority given to oceans by President Barack Obama.

The task force proposes a new National Ocean Council of two dozen top-level federal officials to guide an “;ecosystem based”; approach to ocean management. Its interim report makes protection of oceans resources a national goal.

“;It's an important day,”; said Chris Mann of the Pew Environmental Group, which issued an acclaimed ocean report six years ago. “;These are great recommendations ... but a big chunk of work lays ahead in fleshing out the details in this.”;

The task force has held hearings in Anchorage and San Francisco and will hear testimony in Honolulu and three other cities in the next two months. Questions need to be asked about how conflicting interests will be handled by the new council.

For example, representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Interior Department and Pentagon told the Greenwire environmental news service that the new policy would not change their ongoing review of permits for projects such as the Navy sonar training exercises. However, Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, said changes could come later.

The report calls for a system that “;maintains and enhances”; multiple uses of oceans, coastal areas and the Great Lakes, “;harmonizes competing and complementary uses effectively,”; restores the “;health, productivity and resiliency”; of the waters and “;recognizes environmental changes and impacts, including those associated with an increasingly ice-diminished Arctic, sea-level rise and ocean acidification.”;

That is a tall order, for there is little if any harmony among many of the various groups interested in activities ranging from offshore energy exploration and agricultural runoff to conservation, fisheries and recreation.

It goes without saying that eventual policies will continue to be set, as they should be, in the Oval Office, where Obama will decide whether to issue executive orders or memoranda to federal agencies.