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January 2014 Issue

Strengthening America's Ocean Economy: The National Ocean Policy

By Dr. S. Bradley Moran
Acting Director, National Ocean Council Office
Executive Office of the President

It may not date all the way back to the Ancient Mariner, but there is an old saying within ocean science circles: 'Map once, use the data many times.' This is the kind of simple but wise thinking that underlies the National Ocean Policy, which was created by Executive Order in 2010 and established a framework for 27 federal agencies, departments and offices to work together to advance shared priorities. Without creating any new laws or authorities and without demanding any new funding streams, that framework is now helping federal agencies coordinate their activities, cut red tape and deliver a range of synergistic benefits—spurring economic growth while supporting sustainable ecosystems, strengthening coastal security, and empowering states and communities with stakes in ocean and coastal resources.

Last April, the National Ocean Council (NOC)—composed of representatives from those 27 federal agencies, departments, and offices—issued its Implementation Plan, translating the National Ocean Policy into on-the-ground actions. The Implementation Plan endorsed the concept of voluntary regional marine planning, a transparent, bottom-up approach to coordinating activities that can help regions grow their economies and support their coastal communities while protecting and conserving their ocean and coastal ecosystems.

Regions that want to do marine planning establish regional planning bodies, jointly led by federal, state and tribal members. Stakeholder engagement, public participation, and information from a wide variety of sources, including scientists, technical experts, industry, government agencies and native communities, are vitally important to the process to ensure marine planning is based on a full understanding of the range of interests and activities in the region. The National Ocean Council recognizes that there is a wide variety of ocean users, industries and interests, and that even within any particular group, perspectives may differ greatly. For that reason, when the Council issued a marine planning handbook in August, it made clear that regional planning bodies should operate in an open, science-based and cooperative environment—one in which all stakeholders and the general public are guaranteed the opportunity to inform marine plans by sharing data, information and perspectives.

A common misconception about marine planning is that regional planning bodies wield the power to make decisions about who can use the ocean and where certain activities can occur. In fact, regional planning bodies do not have this power; their purpose is simply to create a marine plan, which is not a regulatory action. With input from the public, ocean industries and all interested stakeholders, regional planning bodies first define what ocean issues they want to address in their regions and how they want to do so. Federal agencies can then use the resulting marine plan to ensure they fully understand and take into account regional priorities when exercising their existing statutory decision-making authorities.

This coordinated planning process stands in sharp contrast to last-minute, project-by-project choices that so often can run afoul of one another and ultimately waste time and money. A common example of the need for this process comes from Rhode Island waters, where plans for a wind energy facility proceeded for months, and at significant expense, until it was discovered that the site in question was already being used for military training exercises.

When people begin to discuss what activities are already happening and what uses may come in the future, they inevitably start discussing what kind of science and data they need, what the conflicts are and how they can be avoided—a process that can benefit all parties. We are already seeing that simply getting the federal agencies, states and stakeholders together (whether in person or remotely) to discuss marine activities in the region yields benefits. Marine planning will always have constraints, including that our information about ocean resources and ocean uses will never be perfect, but it is an ongoing process that is meant to be flexible as states of knowledge, and even values, change over time.

Because these are inherently bottom-up, democratic processes, interest in a given region is the driving force for creating a regional planning body, and four regions have already established bodies: the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. In other regions, discussions are underway to better understand how marine planning could work for those regions. In regions that choose not to establish a body, federal agencies are committed nonetheless to working cooperatively with each other and with states, tribes and stakeholders as they carry out their missions.

As marine planning moves forward in the regions, and as federal agencies work on accomplishing the tasks outlined in the Implementation Plan, I hope you will participate by adding your perspectives. The NOC is creating communication products that will keep you updated and invites you to join the distribution list by emailing NOC@ostp.eop.gov or by visiting www.whitehouse.gov/oceans. The National Ocean Council is dedicated to delivering a more efficient, collaborative network of government services and resources so that together we can grow the ocean economy, keep our ocean healthy, and enjoy the myriad offerings and opportunities provided by our ocean environments for decades to come.

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