With the many major initiatives occurring since President Obama took office, the interagency Ocean Policy Taskforce may have been overlooked. The President charged the heads of executive departments and federal agencies to develop a national policy recommendation to ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of oceans, our coasts and the Great Lakes. Led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, participation included senior leadership of federal agencies with significant ocean responsibilities. The Taskforce took to the road and held hearings around the country to gather input. They were well attended by both the senior taskforce members and the public.
The hearings were open to public input. In addition, a number of individuals were asked specifically to testify before the Taskforce and working group. I was privileged to be asked to provide input on the concept of marine spatial planning (MSP), a central theme for the draft policy, as it might affect the Gulf, and again on Gulf fisheries issues. I believe I was the only individual to have two shots at informing the Taskforce.
The possibility of a true national oceans policy holds great promise for the future of our oceans. The fate of oceans, like the Gulf of Mexico, is important to us all, because what happens in, and to this marine environment, affects the economic and environmental health of our nation. The latest data on U.S. ocean sector industries reveals that more than 2 million jobs and over $128 billion in GDP annually results from just ocean tourism, recreation and fisheries. The Gulf of Mexico contributes over 90% of our nation’s offshore energy production. The offshore petroleum industry in the Gulf employs 55,000 workers and is the economic underpinning of many coastal communities. At the same time the Gulf yields 69% of the shrimp and 70% of oysters caught in the U.S.
Over 41% of the U.S. drains into the Gulf via the Mississippi River and contributes to the annual creation of a “dead zone” that can extend up to 7,000 square miles. Gulf coast states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) make up four of the five top states responsible for the greatest surface discharge of toxic chemicals. Even with these stressors the Gulf annually produces more finfish, shrimp and shellfish than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England areas combined. Additionally, Gulf recreational fisheries generate $5.4 billion annually in economic benefits. Recreational fishing added 1,000 new jobs a year to the Texas economy from 2001 to 2006, according to USFWS reports. The Gulf of Mexico is a place where economics and the environment both coexist and contend.
That balance of economic and environmental health and productivity we now enjoy is not sustainable. The Gulf of Mexico is basically a shallow subtropical sea, and as such is this country’s most vulnerable body of water to the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, warming temperatures, ocean acidification and stampeding invasive species, exacerbated by growing populations and expanding resource demands, will overpower even the Gulf of Mexico’s remarkable resilience, unless we change the paradigm of management. The current tangle of more than 140 different and sometime conflicting laws and regulations, administered by twenty federal agencies is not a recipe for success. The draft national policy calls for the formation of a National Ocean Council to coordinate the various agencies. If this can be more than just another layer of bureaucracy and actually break down traditional walls between federal agencies, it will be of benefit. If a National Ocean Council tries to implement a one size fits all policy over our diverse ocean regions, it will be an unmitigated disaster. There exist regional models of ocean governance that hold great potential to achieve the stated goals of a national ocean policy. The Gulf States Alliance is one such model that has been emulated in other coastal regions and is the ideal means to both craft national polices into regionally effective ones, and then implement those polices to the benefit of us all.
Marine spatial planning is a central concept of the draft policy. It is a process for analyzing and managing ocean space for specified commercial, recreational and environmental purposes. MSP alarms many of the key stakeholders in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil and gas interests are concerned it will be used to preclude their activities. Fisheries interests are concerned that it will be used to establish no fishing zones. These fears are not unfounded, but they do not have to be realized. MSP can be a valuable tool to assure both the economic and environmental health of our coastal oceans if it is regionally directed to assure all stakeholders a place at the table and if the process recognizes that economic and environmental health are inexorably linked. The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies was formed around these very concepts and is the reason I am both supportive and cautious regarding the emphasis of MSP by the Taskforce. The recently issued interim MSP guidelines, issued by the Taskforce on December 9, appear to provide for regional input.
A national ocean policy can be the framework to guide us through an unsure future and help assure the economic and environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico. Like many issues the devil is in the details, but both the Harte Research Institute and I are more optimistic about our oceans future because of this effort. You should be as well.