President Obama raises ocean issues to a high priority

President Obama is being praised for his decision to pull together all the ocean-related challenges this nation faces and for plotting a unified course of action.

On Friday, the president issued a memorandum calling for a task force to develop a national ocean policy along with a “framework” for action and a set of objectives. See the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, along with a news story by reporter Doug Palmer of Reuters.

I was tempted to state cynically that actions speak louder than words, so we should curb our enthusiasm about what can be done to save the oceans. But then I talked to Bill Ruckelshaus, who co-chairs the Joint Ocean Commission, a national group dedicated to this topic.

Ruckelshaus seems to be thrilled with this latest development, following years of failed promises from the Bush administration.

“This is quite a significant event, really,” Bill told me. “It moves the oceans up on the presidential agenda, which means they will get more attention from Congress and from agencies in the administration. Presidencies are all about setting agendas, and this means more attention will be paid to the recommendations we made.”

I’ll tell you a little more about what my conversation with Mr. Ruckelshaus, but first I’ll review the history.

Five years ago, similar praise was accorded to President Bush after the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy — a presidentially appointed body — released it’s comprehensive examination of the major problems facing the oceans. The report included a list of potential solutions.

Adm. James D. Watkins, a retired Navy officer who chaired the commission, expressed enthusiasm for the reception he felt the report was getting from the Bush administration.

“President Bush’s response to the Commission’s Report and his signing of Executive Order establishing a Secretarial-level Committee on Ocean Policy … sets into motion the important process of developing and implementing a new national ocean policy,” Watkins declared.

Despite the positive reaction, I don’t believe a whole lot came about. (Review the last three “report cards.”) A separate report written by the Pew Oceans Commission received even less attention.

After the two commissions dissolved, some members — including Ruckelshaus — moved into a new organization called the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a nongovernmental group that maintained pressure for action through annual “report cards” relating the progress, or lack thereof, on ocean issues.

In April of this year, the joint commission issued an urgent new report called “Changing Oceans, Changing World: Ocean Priorities for the Obama Administration and Congress” (PDF 280 kb). I outlined that report in a Water Ways entry on April 7.

And so now we come to today, five months into the new administration, which seems to be trying to do everything at once. Can there really be much energy left for a discussion about the oceans?

Bill Ruckelshaus is undaunted. “I think holding back and doing things one at a time just doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to act while the energy is there.”

Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Nixon, now chairs the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership, where he is heading the effort to reverse the degradation of our inland waterways.

President Bush created the U.S. Commission on Oceans, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But pulling all the environmental agencies together and getting Congress to focus on budgets, regulations and international treaties just never came to pass.

Why is Obama’s action different?


Said Ruckelshaus, “It is unlikely that he would move this up on his agenda and then ignore the proclamation. This sends a clear signal. We had a report called ‘Changing Oceans,’ suggesting ocean priorities. I think they are more likely to pay attention to those recommendations now.”

Ruckelshaus and others concerned about ocean policy have met with Nancy Sutley, who chairs the Council on Environmental Quality and will lead a task force on ocean policy. He has also met with Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They, as well as Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, have been very receptive in discussing the plight of the oceans and what needs to be done, Ruckelshaus told me.

“I think the proclamation (on Friday) was the result of a lot of effort on the part of commission members,” he said.

A statement from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative compliments Obama for his action:

Better coordination among the federal agencies with jurisdiction over our oceans was a primary recommendation of both the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission more than five years ago. The increasingly urgent need for a national ocean policy and necessary coordination to effectively implement such policy was reemphasized by environmental, ocean and industry leaders …

The Joint Initiative applauds President Obama for setting an aggressive timeline of 90 days for an interagency task force to provide recommendations on the content and coordinated implementation of a national ocean policy and a timeline of 180 days to develop a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning.

Andy Sharpless, chief executive officer for the environmental group Oceana, said unifying actions are needed to coordinate the 20 federal agencies that administer more than 140 varying laws dealing with oceans.

“With the oceans facing the triple threats of overfishing, pollution and climate change, they need attention at the highest levels of government,” Sharpless said.

12 thoughts on “President Obama raises ocean issues to a high priority

  1. The United States is going to “save” the oceans? What are we going to do about the negative impacts of China and Japan and Russia and all the other sovereign nations that don’t adhere to our ideals? Will we fire on Japanese whalers? Russian trawlers? Or will we just use the oceans as a vast, deep excuse to tax and regulate the American people and economy? When bureaucrats like Bill Ruckleshaus say they are excited about the President moving this up the priority list, they really mean that they are excited about the prospects of “their” sector of the budget getting increased funding.

  2. BlueLight, it could be that (a) the oceans are in trouble, (b) the United States can do something about it even if it cannot solve the entire global problem, (c) we can more effectively spend whatever resources we allocate to it if we have a thought-out policy, and (d) it’s actually economically beneficial to protect the resource. Couldn’t it? For example, what is the lost value of the now-defunct New England fisheries that we annhilated through overfishing, with very little help from foreign countries? How about Great Lakes fishing? How about the value of the California salmon fishery, closed again for the second year in a row? Would we prefer to write off the value of Washington’s shellfish industry, or try to protect it from acidification? Unless you think those things don’t matter, how can you be against trying to address the problems?

  3. Those failures you cite… New England, Great Lakes, California salmon… add to it Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound… are the same reasons I doubt our ability to “save” the world’s oceans. If we can’t even get our own house in order…

    And why have we failed at that? Let’s look at Puget Sound. Ten years into our recovery effort, it was plain the system was inefficient and ineffective: a multitude of little fiefdoms was operating – first and foremost – in competition for grant money. There was no accountability, there was no coordination. When that became plain to the public, the legislature said, “yes, we see that. We will fix it. We will create the Puget Sound Partnership to oversee and coordinate and bring efficiency to the system.” Only that hasn’t happened. All the little fiefdoms still exist (still competing for funding). The Puget Sound Partnership is just another (albeit much LARGER) mouth to feed. And if we cannot bring discipline to our local fiefdoms (everything from State agencies to local governments to “coordinating” councils to community groups to friends of the local drainage ditch), then how are we going to bring discipline to international sovereigns? And short of that, it seems unfair to ask the American taxpayer to fund – yet another – good intention. And your assurances of “effective spending”, well thought-out policies and economic benefits… We’ve heard them before. They haven’t proven themselves anything more than empty campaign promises.

  4. BlueLight raises some vexing frustrations from trying to re-prioritize our social value system to protect and restore the natural world rather than exploit and dominate all ecosystems and living things. That’s the scope of what we’re really talking about here. It’s much harder than just turning a ship around. The task at hand is to guide and inform the general public (yes, including every industrial or “developing” human society on Planet Earth) to nurture nature and limit consumption to what is absolutely necessary. It can sound bleak, like going back to living in caves, but it doesn’t have to be if we do it in a planned, coordinated way rather than lurch from crisis to crisis. Artistic expression, family and community can thrive in a minimalist economy, but such conscious adaptation would call for understanding the validity of scientific forecasts and the need for democratically mandated adaptations as we downscale economic habits and institutions. The massive plastic vortexes in the middle of both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans are evidence of metastasized overconsumption, but are just one example. We have free expression in our society but if we wish to avoid depleting our own habitat beyond human viability we’ll need to use our voices to support every effort to shift the focus away from simply increasing corporate and personal income and toward ensuring we have a productive and healthy planet. If elected officials and agency heads are not making positive changes but instead re using their positions simply to chase grants of course they should hear from us, but just worrying about grant money and tax rates shows a gross underestimation of the task at hand. Rather we should remind them of the values we expect them to work toward.

  5. A “vexing frustration” is having specific questions ignored or responded to with general philosophical musings. It is typical of the debate. Until those favoring the “shift” you describe are willing to be honest about their failures, tactics and goals, the public will remain skeptical, resistant, outsiders. What, then, your “democratically mandated adaptations”?

    Let me respond to some of your assertions…

    “…trying to re-prioritize our social value system”. What, exactly, is “our” social value system?

    “The task at hand is to guide and inform the general public (yes, including every industrial or “developing” human society on Planet Earth) to nurture nature and limit consumption to what is absolutely necessary. It can sound bleak, like going back to living in caves, but it doesn’t have to be if we do it in a planned, coordinated way rather than lurch from crisis to crisis. Artistic expression, family and community can thrive in a minimalist economy” And does this minimalism, this “limiting consumption to what is absolutely necessary” apply, also, to government programs and budgets? It seems to me that a public forced to “downscale economic habits” will not be able to support the ever-growing government we currently have. And, by the way, who are the arrogant proselytizers who will show us this better way? All too often they live lives hypocritical to the existence they would prescribe to the rest of us, the unwashed masses. Arrogance is also a personality flaw of the movement.

    “…such conscious adaptation would call for understanding the validity of scientific forecasts” Even if those forecasts are NOT scientifically valid? Again, the effort to “save” Puget Sound – nevermind the global climate change discussion – has been less than forthright about the biases, shortcomings and failures of their “scientific forecasts”. The public is not being asked to “understand” scientific forecasts. Quite the contrary. The public is being asked (and, really, they are not being “asked”) to accept the regulations writ by agenda-ed bureaucrats who cite these amorphous “scientific” forecasts, models and predictions (often posited to support said legislation) as having mandated this fix.

    “The massive plastic vortexes in the middle of both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans are evidence of metastasized overconsumption” Or they are evidence of an incomplete utilization process.

    “We have free expression in our society” Not really. And we CERTAINLY do not have range of opinion and open discussion in our environmental restoration community. Contrary opinions are squelched or marginalized (a tact the rest of your post seems to advocate). Saying “we have freedom of expression, BUT” and then going on to imply we must speak with one voice (one THOUGHT) in reminding our officials of the values “we” expect them to work for ignores the individual’s ability to think, articulate, and live their own life. It also ignores the strong desire individuals have to do just that.

    “…just worrying about grant money and tax rates shows a gross underestimation of the task at hand.” If you are characterizing these concerns as that, then it is your “gross underestimation”.

  6. So we’re stuck. As individuals we all have the right to distrust others’ motives, react against novel social values like environmentalism, and to be skeptical of any scientifically tested assessment of what we’re doing to the foundations of life (clean air and water, livable temperatures, productive oceans, etc). We don’t have to go along with changes in our behavior that are needed to protect and restore those foundations for the foreseeable future. The dominant social value for the past few hundred years of Western civilization has been individual freedom.

    Unfortunately, however, the call for individual freedom is amplified in much of mainstream media today by emphasizing distrust of society, especially when new ideas call for changes in our behavior beyond our comfort zone. The resulting negativity overwhelms our overall ability to respond in an organized, coordinated way to the physical realities of climate and habitat degradation that increasingly damage our biological processes, i.e., our ability to continue to live.

    If a solid core of individuals insist, as a group (in a form of groupthink), on distrusting the scientific results that call for behavioral adaptations, and choose to doubt the motives of other individuals who are in positions to organize the needed adaptations, then as a society we can’t act in a coordinated way to make those adaptations, and we will suffer the forecasted calamaties of habitat destruction and global warming that result from doing business as usual.

    In our society you are not required to help solve environmental issues or to even understand the situation, and you are free to agree with the major industrial and regressive organizations that are actively manipulating public opinion to doubt the scientific conclusions and the motivations of public officials.

    We all have the freedom to refuse to help, but unfortunately for all of us those misinformation campaigns are effectively preventing an adaptive response on a scale that addresses the enormity of current trends on the ground and in the oceans.

    Ironically our individuality is not lost when we see the need to support efforts to restore natural productivity, even when we need to reduce our industrial productivity and consumption to do so. In fact taking care of our own habitat is a good way to express and develop our individuality. It’s an excellent way to to think, articulate, and live our own life. Think of it as singing revolving solos in a band while keeping with the beat and enjoying everyone else’s voices too. It’s a way to bring beauty and harmony into the world.

  7. “Think of it as singing revolving solos in a band while keeping with the beat and enjoying everyone else’s voices too.”

    Like Kumbayah. Only while forcing everyone to throw a dollar into the guitar case for the privilege of listening. And hoping the lovely chorus will sing food onto the plate.

    “Environmentalism” isn’t a “novel social value”. It is the dominant form of “groupthink”, a term you used with implied derision.

    Your martyred post reeks of the arrogance I alluded to earlier: any hint of disagreement means I don’t “understand the situation” that I “agree with the major industrial and regressive organizations”, and that I “refuse to help”. What of the systemic inefficiencies I pointed out with Puget Sound “recovery”? The add-on of ever more agencies to complement – not REPLACE – the failing ones? I guess as long as those agencies continue to sing the right song, we should fund them, irrespective of their ineptitude? Ask for accountability and you “don’t understand”. Ask for efficiency and you “agree with the major industrial and regressive organizations”. This may contradict the impression I believe you have of me, but I actually believe in many of the goals you profess. In fact, I actually LIVE most of them. I part ways with your minions over PROCESS. I believe the sanctimonius squelching of dialogue will actually hamper our ability to make long-term systemic changes. You have nurtured cynicism and mistrust. Singing a pretty song is not going to “bring beauty and harmony” into the world you are helping create.

    Someone’s singing Lord, kumbaya
    Someone’s laughing Lord, kumbaya
    Oh Lord, kumbaya

  8. Immediately end all grant programs to local governments, salmon recovery groups and community organizations for ecosystem studies, planning and restoration. The Puget Sound Partnership (if it is, indeed, to be the oversight agency) should prioritize restoration activity based on regional importance (rather than parse it out to political subdivisions as a form of payoff for towing the party line – as it is now).

    There’s ONE suggestion. What do you think?

  9. That’s pretty much what the Dept. of Ecology does now with the WRIAs (Water Resource Inventory Area). You can see the map at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/services/gis/maps/wria/wria.htm. All grants and funding comes through the WRIAs where local people involved in restoration plow through project applications to assess them and allocate funding. It seems to work well.

    Of course the Partnership has other issues to worry about, like stormwater runoff, industrial pollution, oil spill prevention and cleanup of toxic sites, some of which has to be handled at a statewide or even federal level, and some is more about individual responsibility to change behavior to prevent pollution or habitat destruction. And of course there are hundreds of local organizations organizing cleanups and restoration work.

  10. “It seems to work well.

    uh… no, it doesn’t.

    “And of course there are hundreds of local organizations organizing cleanups and restoration work.

    Yep. The EXACT problem I described. The EXACT problem the Puget Sound Partnership was formed to fix. The EXACT problem that remains.

  11. Oh yes, and what to do with the army of “planners” (in title, only mind you; not certification by the AICP) and, the hilariously ironically titled, “coordinators” that is currently sucking up restoration funds at every city and county DCD… Offer them changed job descriptions upgrading the culverts that the State has just been ordered by the court to fix. Index their pay to the State median, which I believe is around $46,000/year. Develop a uniform, expedited permit process. And have them get out of the meeting room and into the field. Not to “study”, but to actually fix the problems that have been identified. Yes, I know… many of them will feel they are WAY above actually DOING what heretofore they’ve been paid to recommend others do. But, like I said, OFFER them the job. If they don’t want it, I’m sure someone else will. Maybe they can take their “expertise” to another unsuspecting crisis.

    And BTW, your understanding of the way grant money finds its way to local jurisdictions is terribly incomplete. ALL grant money is not funneled through ANYTHING. Again… the problem.

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