White House Proposes National Ocean Council to Chart Course for Ocean Health
WASHINGTON, DC, September 21, 2009 (ENS) - The White House is offering for public comment a new plan to better govern and protect the nation's ocean waters, coasts and the Great Lakes. Under the plan, a new interagency National Ocean Council would be created to coordinate ocean-related issues across the federal government and implement a new National Ocean Policy.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality Thursday released the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force Interim Report for a 30-day public review and comment period.

Twenty-four senior officials from administration agencies, departments, and offices make up the task force, which is led by White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley.

"This Interim Report represents a wide spectrum of views and considerations, not just from within the federal government, but from members of the public, local officials, stakeholders and experts from coast to coast," said Sutley.

"It delivers on President Obama's request for recommendations that will move this country towards a more robust national policy for our oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes and recognizes that we have a responsibility to protect the oceans and coasts for the benefit of current and future generations," Sutley said.

On June 12, President Barack Obama established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to develop recommendations for a national policy for U.S. oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes, a framework for improved federal policy coordination, and an implementation strategy to meet the objectives of a national ocean policy within 90 days. Within 180 days, the task force is charged with developing a recommended framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning.

New York City on the Atlantic Ocean (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, an oceanographer who now serves as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, said, "This is a historic day. For the first time, we as a nation say loudly and clearly that healthy oceans matter."

"Healthy oceans matter because they are vital to our prosperity, our health, our security, our ability to adapt to climate change and our quality of life," said Lubchenco. "The interim report of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force lays out a national ocean policy that upholds our stewardship responsibilities, ensures accountability for our actions, and serves as a balanced model of efficient and sustainable ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes management and conservation."

Nearly half of the U.S. population is located in coastal counties. With over 95,000 miles of coastline and the largest exclusive economic zone in the world, U.S. ocean waters, coasts, and the Great Lakes account for the majority of the national economy, "totaling trillions of dollars each year," the Interim Report states. These waters support tens of millions of jobs, are a source of recreation, and play a critical role in U.S. transportation, as well as in the global mobility and readiness of U.S. Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security.

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen said, "America's enduring maritime interests - our reliance on the oceans and Great Lakes for commerce, sustenance, and security - have not changed since our nation's founding. What has changed is the complexity of the pressures on these critical ecosystems and the demand for an effective and integrated national strategy to manage their use, protection, and sustainability."

"The recommendations of this Interim Report chart a clear course to address the needs for an integrated national policy and governance structure that will better provide for the safety, security, and stewardship of the maritime environment, now and into the future," said Allen.

Under the proposal, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy would lead an interagency National Ocean Council. "Such a governance structure, combined with sustained high-level staff involvement, would ensure that these areas are a priority throughout the federal government," the report states.

During the Bush administration, two comprehensive reports on sustainable ocean management were issued. One, mandated by Congress and released in 2004 by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy headed by Admiral James Watkins, contained 212 recommendations. http://oceancommission.gov/

The other, "America's Living Oceans," released in 2003, was the product of the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts' Oceans Commission chaired by Leon Panetta, who now serves as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Both reports essentially said America's oceans are in crisis and the stakes could not be higher. However, both reports remained on the shelf.

Obama administration officials say this time things will be different.

"President Obama's vision for a sustainable and comprehensive strategy for our oceans is vital to the wise management of these critical resources," said Associate Deputy Secretary of the Interior Laura Davis.

Sunset on the central Oregon coast (Photo by Ric Kruer)

"With 1.7 billion acres in the Outer Continental Shelf - including management responsibilities for offshore renewable and conventional energy resources, 35,000 miles of coastline, and millions of acres of marine-based parks, refuges and national monuments the Department of Interior and its agencies are front and center in the effort to build the coordinated national ocean policy that our country needs."

"The Interim Report provides a clear road map for America's stewardship of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes," said EPA's Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water Peter Silva. "EPA is proud to have played a key role in the development of this crucial report."

Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, called the Interim Report "an auspicious beginning."

"With today's announcement, the federal agencies that are responsible for our oceans are declaring their intention to usher in a new era of ocean management, one predicated on environmental stewardship and the sustainable use of marine resources," he said Thursday.

In addition to recommending ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, which has sat awaiting Senate ratification for decades, the Interim Report identifies nine priority objectives.

For each objective, the National Ocean Council would be develop a strategic action plan within six to 12 months from its establishment.

The first four objectives represent "overarching" ways in which the federal government must operate differently or better to improve stewardship of the ocean, coasts, and the Great Lakes.

The implementation strategy also identifies five areas of special emphasis important to achieving the national policy. Reichert said, "We are particularly pleased that the task force has highlighted the Arctic as an area of interest. Because of the unique threats and development pressures it faces, that region exemplifies the need for a new management philosophy and approach, before it is opened to commercial use."

"The work of the presidential task force is far from done," he said. "The Pew Environment Group looks forward to working with the administration in the days and months ahead to ensure that we craft an ocean policy the nation can be proud of, and that recognizes the vital role that our oceans play in the economic and ecological health of our country and the world."

The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force will provide a final report with all of its recommendations later this year.

Meanwhile, the task force will hold at least four more regional public meetings in: Providence, Rhode Island on September 24; in Honolulu, Hawaii on September 29; and later in Cleveland, Ohio; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

The initial meetings were held in Anchorage, Alaska on August 21 and in San Francisco, California on September 17.

The Interim Report is found at http://www.whitehouse.gov/oceans. Submit a comment here.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.