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National Ocean Policy Calls for Smart Choices

I recently joined Ocean Conservancy as its new CEO because I believe in one simple but very ambitious premise: the ocean must be at the very center of the key challenge of our time.

That challenge is how to meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us. In every aspect of this challenge—food, energy, climate, and protection of our natural resources—our ability to manage impacts on the ocean will make the crucial difference in sustaining the resources that we need to survive.

This is why approaches that look at the big picture, like the Obama administration’s National Ocean Policy plan released last week, are exactly what we need to rise to this challenge.

Surfer rides a wave off Ocean Beach
A surfer rides a wave off Ocean Beach. Photo: Michael Farkas, My Shot

A National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan may not have been a sensational title, but it is essentially a to-do list for a healthy ocean and economy, and it’s something worth getting excited about.

This to-do list includes more than 50 action items related to making smarter use of the ocean and Great Lakes, both for conservation and the economy. There are tasks related to protecting the Arctic, tackling climate change and ocean acidification, improving water quality, and overall finding ways to better coordinate and manage ocean uses through data collection and monitoring, mapping, and improved agency coordination.

Superstorm Sandy’s coastal destruction; the Japan tsunami’s drifting debris; BP Deepwater Horizon’s gusher of oil in the Gulf; and the declaration of fisheries disasters in New England, Mississippi, and Alaska have taught us that these calamities affect the health of our ocean, our communities, and our economy. We also know that disasters, both natural and man-made, will strike our shores again. Investing in our ocean’s health will help not only respond to future adversity, but also better withstand the impacts.

The policy also gives regions of the country that want to do more collaborative planning the tools they need to do so. Right now, there are unnecessary conflicts in the ocean because there aren’t enough ways to gather and share information.

One example of how better data and coordination benefits both businesses and the environment is in New England, where ship pilots can use an iPad application called WhaleAlert to track right whales that have been tagged. This helps prevent whale strikes, but it also allows the pilots to better plan the speed of their ships. They can slow down if whales are nearby, but they don’t have to do so unnecessarily if the area is clear. The National Ocean Policy will facilitate more of that kind of innovative thinking.

The Implementation Plan also recognizes the tough fiscal climate we’re in—it emphasizes that these priorities can help direct limited resources to where they’re most needed. Unfortunately we can expect some critics to cry foul based on politics rather than the content of the plan. Slowing down or blocking the National Ocean Policy could devastate services that many businesses and communities rely on.

The United States should be the shining example for the rest of the world when it comes to ocean management. Ultimately, the National Ocean Policy is about making smart choices for a healthier ocean—the first of many necessary steps to save money, time, and jobs in the short term, and to improve the health of our ocean and the jobs and resources we have come to rely on in the long term.