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January 2013 Issue

The National Ocean Policy Fosters Collaboration for Healthier Oceans

By Norman Y. Mineta
Co-Chair, Joint Ocean Commission Initiative; Vice Chair,
Hill & Knowlton Inc.; Former U.S. Transportation, Commerce Secretary

The oceans and coasts of the U.S. provide the nation with critical goods and services—food, energy, desirable places to live, recreation, trade and security. These services are dependent on healthy marine resources, which in turn support coastal communities and ocean-based economies that are key pillars of the U.S. economy and high quality of life.

Yet, ocean health is declining, due to decades of uncoordinated, sector-based management of these resources and government failure to invest in the science and technology needed to understand and effectively manage complex ocean and coastal ecosystems. To address these failures, in 2010, President Barack Obama created the National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts and the Great Lakes by executive order to improve coordination among federal agencies and all levels of government and ocean users.

The National Ocean Policy builds upon a series of actions taken by administrations of both parties over the course of many years and has strong bipartisan origins. It responds directly to a long-standing priority of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a bipartisan collaboration of ocean leaders.

The Policy
The National Ocean Policy calls for management of our oceans to be grounded in stakeholder input and improved interagency coordination for better use of public resources, strengthening of the economy, improving ocean health and reinvigorating coastal communities. In an era of shrinking budgets at all levels of government, the need for efficient and effective coordination to maximize scarce resources has never been more critical.

The establishment of the National Ocean Policy was a clear step in the right direction. Now, it needs to be effectively and thoughtfully implemented to ensure benefits to the U.S. economy, communities and environment.

In June 2012, the Joint Initiative assessed progress on implementing the policy and issued a U.S. Ocean Policy Report Card, available at http://bit.ly/SwuNjt.

The assessment concluded that poor communication about the policy early on led to misunderstandings by stakeholders and that politically-driven negative attention has hindered progress. As implementation moves forward, it will be vital to engage stakeholders, listen and respond to questions and concerns, and incorporate feedback. In the next four years, U.S. leaders must make sure that meaningful steps are taken to ensure this critical policy stays in motion, and its full potential is achieved.

Regional Progress
The Joint Initiative's assessment found that states and regions are making important progress on implementing the National Ocean Policy. Multistate regional ocean partnerships, such as those in the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, South Atlantic, Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and on the West Coast, are facilitating increased engagement of ocean resource users, advocates and citizens. These partnerships have fostered coordinated research and science, and have leveraged limited resources to advance regional priorities that benefit local ecosystems, communities and economies.

Some of these groups are prioritizing ocean planning in their regions to better understand the spatial dimensions of their ocean resources, including the human uses of those resources. The process serves as a forum for increased coordination and collaboration among states, federal agencies, tribal nations and other stakeholders for management of ocean resources and space. While regions are in different stages of employing a spatial planning approach to ocean management, the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions in particular have taken the lead on engaging stakeholders and working collaboratively to advance ocean planning for their regions, e.g., by creating the Web-based Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal and Northeast Ocean Data Portal, respectively, to collect and vet ocean data.

The National Ocean Policy calls for ocean and coastal management decisions to be grounded in the best available science and knowledge. This requires improved and coordinated ocean observation, monitoring, modeling and forecasting.

Strong science and research are critical to advance our understanding of the oceans' role in major public policy challenges, including climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, evaluating and preparing for renewable energy opportunities in coastal waters, and contributing to the science and technology base that is central to the nation's economy. It is at the regional level that the individuals and businesses engaged in ocean science, engineering and management can be of great influence by helping to create innovative solutions to problems and filling data gaps for a more complete understanding of ocean systems.

Industry engagement is particularly important to regional ocean planning. Industries need to be thoroughly involved to ensure that managers and stakeholders understand their unique needs and challenges, and to help shape a process that ultimately leads to increased efficiencies and reduced uncertainty for industries operating in coastal and ocean waters.

Areas for Improvement
There is still much work to be done to achieve positive results in the health of the oceans, more efficient ocean management and identification of critical overarching problems. Ocean management, science and education programs remain severely underfunded, hindering them from supporting coastal communities and economies, and undermining the health of ocean resources. Even in these times of fiscal austerity, in the face of an aging workforce, the U.S. must invest in ocean sciences and technology education to train the next generation of ocean scientists and engineers.

In addition, as prioritized by the National Ocean Policy, the U.S. must maintain and build its international leadership to protect national economic and security interests as well as valuable marine resources. The Joint Initiative firmly supports this priority. As a nation with one of the world's largest exclusive economic zones, the U.S. has interests that are deeply entwined with other countries sharing jurisdiction over the world's oceans. Maintaining and strengthening these international dialogues and partnerships will be especially important as the nation faces new opportunities and challenges related to the opening of the Arctic and the increasing commercial interests in natural resources and energy sources in the region.

Moving Forward
The Obama administration should maintain momentum to implement the National Ocean Policy in order to improve decision making, make resource use more effective and support the health of the oceans. In the coming year, the Joint Initiative will continue its role as a trusted convener of the ocean community and its commitment to supporting leaders at all levels of government, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and academic communities to successfully implement the policy.

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