Ocean Policy Debate Restarts in Congress

The National Ocean Policy, launched by President Barack Obama in 2010, is facing congressional scrutiny regarding its scope and cost after seven years of slow but steady progress on the effort. In early December, the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard convened a hearing entitled “National Ocean Policy: Stakeholder Perspectives.” Much of the oversight hearing focused on the idea that the National Ocean Policy is a federal over-reach, adding top-down bureaucracy that will increase the regulatory burden in the United States.  In September, as part of House Appropriations Committee efforts to develop the federal government’s fiscal year 2018 budget, Rep. Bill Flores (R.-Texas) introduced an amendment to H.R. 3354, the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, to prohibit fiscal year 2018 appropriations from being used to implement the National Ocean Policy.

During the Senate hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Dan Sullivan (R.-Alaska) invited four panelists to share their experiences with how the National Ocean Policy affected their business in commercial fisheries, energy, agriculture, and shipping. Testimony from Bonnie Brady of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, Christopher Guith of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Dan Keppen of the Family Farm Alliance echoed Sullivan’s concerns about additional bureaucracy and regulatory burdens as a result of the policy. Kathy Metcalf from the Chamber of Shipping of America noted some successes (data collection and access, science to fill gaps, collaboration across mandates) along with her frustrations. Two common concerns were that inadequate data will lead to poor decisions that undermine existing coastal zone and fisheries management regimes and that ocean planning will lead to zoning and then to closed areas that restrict traditional uses such as fishing. Ranking minority subcommittee member Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) shared his hopes to hear from other experts during some future hearing.

The National Ocean Policy, developed by the Obama Administration via Executive Order 13547 in 2010, has its genesis in the Oceans Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2000. The intervening decade featured debate coordinated by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and involving all ocean sectors. The commission had seven primary purposes, four of which resonate directly with AFS interests, namely to make recommendations for coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy that will promote: (1) responsible stewardship, including use, of fishery resources and other ocean and coastal resources; (2) the protection of the marine environment and prevention of marine pollution; (3) the expansion of human knowledge of the marine environment; and (4) U.S. leadership in ocean and coastal activities. With a clear mandate and commission leadership, effort slowly shifted from the Bush vision into Obama action.

Ocean planning advocates assume existing efforts to make best and sustainable use of our oceans can be improved. Research to fill information gaps, regulatory decisions, resource management, conflict resolution, and public support and acceptance rank high as objectives for the public and private sectors. Successful ocean planning could reduce administrative delays, decrease litigation risks, and improve the pace of all ocean decisions. Ocean planning is not intended to add new regulations, but instead would identify regional collaborations and compromises to benefit regional stakeholders. Fish, recreational anglers, and commercial fisheries, plus their associated habitats and ecosystem connections, would be part of any ocean planning effort and could benefit from any improved processes.

Most of the nine regional ocean planning partnerships are actively involved in some stage of implementation. Check out Data.gov for the latest accomplishments (data portals, collaborative processes, special products, and more) from each planning body. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Bodies are the only two regional bodies with approved plans targeted for implementation in 2017. Funding constraints are likely to limit progress, but some improvements are expected.

The data collection efforts have been applauded widely as a vast improvement. For example, the Northeast Ocean Data Portal offers data layers for natural resources from eelgrass to whales, activities for sectors from fishing to wind power to commercial shipping, integrated interactive maps, analytical tools, and much more. Combined with improved working relationships based on active participation throughout the process (see Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body for an example of member agencies and sectors), hopes are high. Another example of improved ocean planning comes from the West Coast Regional Planning Body. Their Communications and Engagement Plan summarizes the long effort to provide appropriate roles for federally recognized Native American tribes in the planning process, an example of the efforts being taken to include voices not always heard in ocean decision-making.

AFS will continue to monitor and report on ocean planning and relevant developments on Capitol Hill.