You don’t need to tell a Santa Cruzan how important the ocean is. From our economy to our natural beauty to our hard-fought-formoniker as “Surf City,” Santa Cruz is defined by its relationship to the ocean as much as Colorado is to its Rockies. So when President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on July 19 creating a national ocean policy for the first time in history, it was like hearing about a big break for an old friend who’s been going through a tough time lately.
The Executive Order came immediately after the release of a report by the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and establishes many of the recommendations made by local and long-time ocean advocate Congressman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), including the creation of a National Ocean Council and the use of a practice called marine spatial planning (basically zoning laws for the sea). The hope is that the comprehensive policy will remedy major deficiencies and chaotic management of the ocean from the federal level on down.
In the past, the United States has managed its coasts and oceans in an atomized and disjointed fashion, leading to departmental turf wars, jurisdictional overlaps and a lack of a cohesive vision. According to Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit ocean advocacy group, ocean regulation has been charged to more than 20 federal agencies applying some 140 laws, often independently of one another.
This inefficiency has led to poor long-term planning and, at times, significant delays. One such instance in the Pacific Northwest saw the deployment of wave-powered energy buoys significantly hindered because of conflicts involving overlapping jurisdiction between different agencies authorizing such projects, not concern about the project itself.
The overarching philosophy of the National Ocean Policy will be both science- and ecosystem-based, examining the broader implications of activities like drilling and commercial fishing. The shift in policy priorities is essential for addressing the growing threats to our ocean and coastal resources, including pollution, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and the decline of fisheries.
Accompanying the new policy will be a National Ocean Council made up of top scientists and administrative officials who will provide oversight and regulation for activities such as drilling, fishing and shipping along the nation's ocean shores. The council will work with state, tribal, local, and regional stakeholders to design and implement policies, taking into account local concerns and national long-term goals.
Farr, who has made ocean advocacy a top priority for years, says the new policy helps address many of the oversight problems and piecemeal management that has plagued ocean policy for years.
“We have a lot of conflicts where everybody wants to use [the ocean] for fishing, mining, drilling or so on,” says Farr. “We’ve never been able to resolve all these things so the oceans act is essentially creating a national oceans policy just like we created the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.”
One of the more significant pieces of the policy, and another that Farr has been pushing for for some time, is the practice of marine spatial planning. Much in the same way cities and governments adhere to zoning laws for commercial, residential and industrial areas, marine spatial planning will designate what activities can be done and where. The idea is to look at our oceans as a whole and proactively minimize conflicts while maximizing benefits with its use, creating coherency of vision.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction—it’s like saying we’re going to go to the moon,” says Farr. “We decided as a country that we’re not going to continue to be contributors to an ocean that’s dying. If the ocean dies, mankind dies.”
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