OBAMA’S “OCEAN POLICY TASK FORCE”

Is it a good thing for anglers?

Back in June the Obama Administration called together an “Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force” to  develop recommendations for a national ocean policy that ensures “the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources” and a framework for “coastal and marine spatial planning.”   Since the President’s announcement, the Task Force has released two interim reports , one in September about the national ocean policy and how to implement it and one this month that describes a framework for coordinated coastal and ocean spatial planning.   The Task Force will finalize its recommendations and provide a final report to the President in early 2010.

Frankly, I haven’t been paying much attention to this until lately.  As NOAA chief Lubchenco aptly put it in the last press release, this work “sounds like the stuff of policy wonks.”   And really, it seems like every administration has its own ocean Initiatives that never seem to amount to much.   But the more I read about the Task Force’s work, the more I realized that the Obama Administration action could be a game changing event.  It has the potential to result in sweeping changes in federal ocean management.  What does it mean for anglers? 

Let’s start with what I see as one of the main directives of the Task Force: developing recommendations for ocean “spatial planning”.  What is spatial planning?   Essentially, it’s a process to help plan ahead by allocating spaces in the ocean for its various uses. To reference the full Lubchenco quote “Coastal and marine spatial planning may sound like the stuff of policy wonks, but it is actually vital to anyone who works or plays on the oceans.  In fact, coastal and marine spatial planning is an essential tool for anyone who depends on the oceans for sustainable jobs, healthy seafood, clean energy, recreation, or vibrant coastal communities.” 

I agree…   with all of the encroaching uses such as natural gas platforms, offshore drilling, aquaculture, wind power, etc., there is great potential for “ocean sprawl.”  As demand on ocean space grows, so do the conflicts between traditional uses like fishing, and new or emerging uses, such as the siting of renewable energy facilities or aquaculture projects.

Planning ahead by identifying places where industrial use is appropriate and areas that should be set off limits to such industry certainly makes sense, as long as it’s guided sound scientific assessment.  Such a commitment to marine spatial planning is particularly critical as the country moves forward in developing the clean, renewable energy off the coast (think wind-farms in Cape Cod).  

Furthermore, marine spatial planning could be a tool for implementing the much talked about but rarely implemented “ecosystem-based management”.  Traditional management of ocean activities has focused on individual species, resources, areas, or actions with limited consideration for how the management practices of one might impact the sustainability of another.  Marine spatial planning makes it possible to consider the cumulative impacts of different sectors rather than focusing on a single species, sector, activity or concern.

Spatial planning that fully incorporates the principles of ecosystem-based management could provide a means to objectively and transparently guide and balance allocation decisions for use of ocean resources.   It could allow for the reduction of cumulative impacts from human uses on the marine environment, provide greater certainty for the public and private sector in planning new investments, and reduce conflicts among uses.

 But here’s the rub.  Some folks in the angling community tend to think that ocean zoning, or marine spatial planning will prohibit fishing.  Read “no-take” areas, or areas completely off limits to anglers, even those practicing catch and release. Frankly, I think there’s a bit of paranoia here. 

The federal government defines a marine protected area (MPA) as “any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, tribal, territorial, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.”  That includes many regions that are not, repeat NOT, no-take areas.  It even includes those areas where only recreational fishing is allowed.

A good example of anti-MPA paranoia occurred just last week at the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council meeting.  To deal with “ocean sprawl” NOAA has begun compiling a list of “MPAs. 

In this case, the Council was considering a recommendation that the Scup Gear Restricted Areas (GRAs) off the Mid-Atlantic be added to that list.  The GRAs are simply time-and- area closures designed to protect juvenile scup from small-mesh nets employed mostly by trawlers seeking squid.  Putting the Scup GRAs on the MPA list would have only given the region additional protection from uses likely to harm juvenile scup.

Over the last decade there has been mass hysteria at the mere mention of an MPA, as folks have come to think of it as synonymous with “no-take”.  Thus during the public comment period many expressed concern that putting the Scup GRAs on the NOAA list of MPAs was merely a first step in designating them as no-take areas.  Such concerns were effectively addressed by the Council Chair as well as NOAA staff.  They explained quite clearly that an MPA designation changes nothing about the GRAs.  In other words they are not intended as no-take areas and will not be any more restrictive than they already are.  Furthermore, it was explained that the Council will retain management authority over the GRAs , and that such an MPA designation would not usurp any such authority from the Council.  In other words, NOAA couldn’t, under any circumstances, legally designate the Scup GRAs as no-take areas. 

Regardless, the Council decided by a vote of 9 to 8 to not list the Scup GRA on the national MPA list, which really would have resulted in more protection for the fish, while protecting scup fishermen as well.   The reason for such a vote in my view was pure paranoia.  We’re seeing exactly the same sort of paranoia in the recreational community in regards to spatial planning.    

The fact of the matter is that ocean spatial planning could provide significant benefits to anglers, such as better protection of important fish habitat and preventing uses and activities incompatible with fishing and healthy marine ecosystems.  In other words, various industries will not be able to just come in and set up shop in some critical fishing areas and then prevent anglers from accessing it.  To me that really seems like a good thing. 

The other important directive of the Task Force is to develop a national ocean policy. We have a Clean Water Act for our water and a Clean Air Act for our air.   One would think that we’d have national policy to similarly protect our oceans, but to date, we do not.  Our waters are currently managed in haphazard fashion under more than 140 different laws as well as more than 20 different Federal agency jurisdictions.  We need a unifying national policy that ensures the overall health of the ocean and a mechanism to ensure systematic, consistent implementation of that policy across the board.

How often have we heard fishermen complain that they have to bear the brunt of recovering depleted stocks because the management councils have no authority to address the problems that really caused the stocks to decline?  Consistent approaches to the management of resources, including ecosystem-based and adaptive management, are difficult to achieve given the current shared and overlapping jurisdictional model.  Challenges and gaps arise regularly from the current complexity and structure of this regime and it often leads to confusion and a disjointed management approach. 

Under the Task Force’s recommendations, representatives from various agencies would work together to implement the national ocean policy.  Through increased communication, coordination, and integration across all levels of government, the process could be streamlined, duplicative efforts could be reduced, resources could be leveraged, and disparities could be more easily resolved.   Where agencies have previously clashed over conflicting uses in the ocean, a new “National Ocean Council” would work to address those issues before the conflicts arise.  A set of shared principles and objectives coordinated among all levels of government would translate into effective outcomes.

I see all of this as a positive step forward.  Certainly seems to me like it will be good for anglers, and thus it has my support.  I might even go so far as to say the effort represents a historic initiative from the White House on ocean conservation.  Yet, translating these goals into new approaches in agency management will not be an easy task.  It’s nice to use catch phrases such as “ecosystem management” and “spatial planning” on paper, but carrying them out can and will be tricky, and it will take years, not months.  That said, it is significant that this is all happening so early in the administration’s term, which gives it time to actually try and make the recommendations happen.   Although it’s tough to believe it won’t end up on the backburner with two wars, the worst economy in years, national health care reform and much more taking up policymakers’ time. 

Still, the Ocean Policy Task Force has laid out the need and we’ve gotten some assurance that this incredibly complicated task will move forward.  But the real test will be whether the words of the policy can be turned into concrete actions.  This will take a significant effort on the administration’s part.   Let’s hope that they are up for it.

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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5 comments on “OBAMA’S “OCEAN POLICY TASK FORCE”
  1. avatar MForbes says:

    John,
    I agree that not including the scup GRA on the MPA list is silly. However, considering Lubchecno’s past and the ongoing push for marine reserves (no fishing of any sort allowed), the paranoia about that the spatioal planning process will be used to establish reserves seems justified. Are you not concerned in the least about this?

  2. Thanks for the comments… I understand where you are coming form, but I just don’t think there is any underlying motive here. “Ocean Sprawl” is an issue to that needs to be addressed. And it needs to be done now, before we start getting pushed out of areas to make way for LNG, wind power, aquaculture etc. and really, that’s what this effort is. As far as I can tell, Lubchenco has been unusually receptive, and willing to listen to the recreational community. Do a Google search and you’ll find a ton of stuff. There has been no movement as far as I can tell toward establishing marine reserves by this administration and I don’t see this effort as a means to that end. That said, I suppose it does concern me some, but not enough to jam up a process that is clearly a step in the right direction to deal with an encroaching issue.

  3. avatar MForbes says:

    John,
    Yes, there is tons of stuff. There is also tons of stuff about Lubchenco’s desire and political activities over the years in favor of marine reserves where all fishing is prohibited. You must be aware of all the effort environmental groups have put into establishing marine reserves under various guises, including ecosystem management, marine planning, etc.
    I think you readers deserve at least a nod to the very real possibility that this process will lead to marine reserves.

  4. MForbes… I hear what you’re saying but I really don’t believe this is a push for no take MPAs by Lubchenco or anyone else. It’s addressing an ocean-use issue that we should have addressed a long time ago. Spatial planning could well have some utility for restricting the use of commercial gear, particularly fixed gear such as bottom gill nets and fish traps. There’s a piece of hard bottom of western Long Island (Cholera Bank) that is one of the only hard-bottom habitats off the south shore, important to both recreational and commercial fishermen, that’s currently a candidate for a huge “sea island” LNG plant. Instead of having to go to numerous public hearings, talking to legislators etc, every time one of these proposals pops up, spatial planning could be a tool to permanently keep such plants off good bottom. That really makes a lot of sense to me.

  5. avatar Bill Hubbard says:

    John,
    I did not know about the Oceans Policy Task Force and it’s work until you brought it up here last month for which I thank you.

    Having been involved in fisheries matters in MA and NH; I am certainly aware of the paranoia attendant to many projects in the form of Marine MPAs. Stellwagen Bank comes to mind immediately. There, at least so far, we have not seen loss of access for recreational fishing; though some are still working with stealth to to close the area down.

    I think the Task Force and spatial planning bears close watching by the recreational community but, I also think we have to watch it with open minds. You cite the Cholera Bank issue as one that could benefit by good spatial planning and, there are surely others. Certainly, the Cape Wind Project to place 180 huge windmills in Nantucket Sound is another.

    I think it will boil down to how the Task Force perceives it’s mandate. So far, at least, they seem to be moving in the right direction but, as in municipal plannning; there are good plans and their are bad plans and, it’s up to the public to keep aware of what’s coming at us. Not always an easy job; but forums like this give us a big assist.

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