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U.S. National Ocean Policy: No Success Without Science?

7 May 2012 3:46 pm
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U.S. Geological Survey

Multiuse. A proposed National Ocean Policy hopes to improve efficiencies in marine research, management, and use of ocean waters such as the Port of Los Angeles in California.

Coaxing U.S. federal agencies to work together is no small feat. But an emerging National Ocean Policy (NOP) is attempting to do just that. The Obama Administration's proposed NOP will help federal agencies better organize marine research efforts and inject data into policy decisions—and potentially prevent conflicts between ocean users and save money, U.S. officials argue. But recent public comments on the Administration's plan for implementing the new policy suggest that researchers are concerned that budget shortfalls and program eliminations could undermine efforts to realize these goals.

U.S. policymakers have tried to come up with a coordinated ocean-use policy for years. The most recent effort started in 2000 when Congress passed the Oceans Act, which called for the formation of a U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. The commission issued recommendations for a national ocean policy in a report released in 2004. But it wasn't until July 2010, when President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13547, that the most recent iteration of NOP was put into place.

NOP is intended to enable "the integration of information through the ocean policy agencies that has really not happened in the past," Sally Yozell, director of policy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said last week during a science policy conference hosted by the American Geophysical Union. And that coordination "is going to help us and industry save millions of dollars," she predicted.

In particular, the policy highlights nine goals that seek to address the most pressing issues regarding the oceans and Great Lakes. They include shifting regulators to a more holistic ecosystem-based management perspective, better integrating scientific information in policy decisions, and creating a planning process for determining what kinds of activities should take place in different parts of U.S. waters (a concept officially known as coastal and marine spatial planning). It also aims to encourage 26 federal agencies to work together on ocean management and research efforts. In January, the Administration released a plan for implementing the policy, and the general public had until the end of March to submit their thoughts and opinions to the National Ocean Council.

The thousands of pages of comments, including many from researchers and science organizations, reveal a range of views praising and criticizing the plan. Coastal and marine spatial planning in particular has elicited worries that local and regional interests will be excluded from decision-making processes. Some commercial fishers are also concerned that decisions based solely on scientific information won't take into consideration the cultural and historical traditions of their communities.

Many of the research-focused commenters, however, said they appreciated the NOP's intent to have the government manage resources using an ecosystem-based perspective. That marks a shift from many traditional government management strategies, which often focus on sustaining one type of marine organism or user group without considering the system as a whole. "I applaud the emphasis on ecosystem-based management," wrote David Jay, a physical oceanographer at Portland State University in Oregon. "Too often, federal agency initiatives are based on narrow analyses that fail to consider impacts of a project from a broad ecosystem perspective."

Other commenters, however, expressed concerns about how proposed budget cuts would affect the government's ability to implement NOP. For example, a joint statement by Clean Ocean Action, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and NY/NJ Baykeeper laments a recent White House proposal to eliminate NOAA's James J. Howard Marine Science Lab at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, as well as the agency's Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, which helps researchers rescue and study stranded whales and seals. The programs also generate data on ocean acidification, marine mammal health, and water quality.

Ocean observing equipment, such as buoys and ships, is also facing budget problems, other commenters noted. "Flat budgets in times of escalating costs have resulted in a near-halving of ship utilization, putting the ships at the brink of unsustainability," wrote Kathleen Ritzman, assistant director at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. One solution, she wrote, would be to better coordinate the use and funding of U.S.-based research vessels by federal agencies, including NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy; these agencies often arrange ship time independently for their vessel-based studies.

In an interview with ScienceInsider, NOAA's Yozell agreed with the need to be smarter about how agencies use their ocean observing platforms. "[We are] looking across the federal family and assessing capabilities that our oceanographic fleet has," she said. The goal is to see how agencies can share some of their missions and assets, such as buoys or unmanned vehicles, rather than operate piecemeal.

NOP's goal of better coordinating ocean research across the federal government won't necessarily change the scientific questions being asked by agencies, Yozell said at last week's symposium, but officials hope it will change how data are shared and used. "The hope is, more information being brought together to manage resources are going to have a better end result," she said.

Administration officials say the next step in moving NOP forward will be the release of an ocean research priorities plan, which could come later this year. It's not clear what would happen to the current NOP process if President Obama is defeated in November.

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