A Promising New Commitment to Ocean Protection
On July 19, with the cap on the BP wellhead apparently holding, President Obama finally signed a long-hoped-for Executive Order establishing a new conservation-oriented Ocean and Coastal Policy for the United States. Although it may feel like it's 175 million gallons too late, this approach, had it been implemented during the previous administration, might have created the oversight that would have prevented a Deepwater Horizon-type disaster. The new White House initiative will take a comprehensive approach to all the different uses of our public seas. Using our best observing tools and a national Ocean Council working with regional and local interests there will be a determination of how we can best restore our ocean commons while maintaining its use for recreation, transportation, trade, (clean) energy, (limited) protein, security and, of course, inspiration—the everlasting blue in our red, white and blue. Its what Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, calls "urban planning in the water column," and its spawning has not come easily. In the last 18 months Blue Frontier Campaign and other marine groups helped turn out over 2,000 people for public hearings of the Ocean Policy Task Force, got thousands of comments submitted to the White House and organized a "Wear Blue for the Ocean" day in support of this initiative.
In June NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco received the Blue Frontier Campaign/ Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Policy for being an early promoter of the need for a unified ocean policy with then-President-elect Obama. Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, former Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and many others also worked like dogfish in driving the process forward. The next step is getting the House Natural Resources Committee to keep a Coastal and Ocean Trust Fund in their new energy package. The nation's new ocean policy needs a dedicated source of funding.
Given the impacts of the Gulf spill, it would be crazy to respond by moving forward on climate reform while neglecting the other saltier 71% of our blue planet. Along with a presidential commitment and funding, a new approach to our public seas ought to include a dedicated ocean agency or Department of the Oceans that reflects the true value of our seas to the nation. This is not my idea, but has been proposed several times, most recently by the Pew Ocean Commission in 2003 (chaired by current CIA Director Leon Panetta). I think bringing together the Coast Guard for operations and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for science, policy and exploration could inspire people in the way the creation of NASA did more than a generation ago. And in the wake of the Gulf disaster, we could all use some inspiration.
Oil and Water
If the new cap on the BP wellhead continues to hold, we may be moving from containment to consequences. Still, it's hard to measure the long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf of Mexico. By my second trip to the region last week there were over 45,000 people and 6,000 vessels and aircraft involved in the response.
Some of the clean-up effects are questionable. Off Ocean Springs, Mississippi with Gulf Coast Research Lab Director Bill Hawkins, I watched a crew of 10 men with three flat boats trying to spray wash about 80 feet of oiled marsh grass to little effect. Nearby they were protecting a rock jetty rather than wetlands. In Louisiana's Barataria Bay I've seen miles of oiled wetlands that act as the nurseries and filters of the sea and provide a livelihood for fishermen and their communities. Flying over the Gulf in June with Waterkeeper's John Wathen and SouthWings conservation pilot Tom Hutchings, I'd seen 100 dolphins and a sperm whale trapped and dying in the oil. Off Mississippi, I saw dozens of oiled brown pelicans. Their return to the Gulf in the past decade, years after DDT was banned, is considered a huge environmental success story. Now these birds are threatened both by the oil and the chemical dispersants used in cleanup, as are sea turtles, tuna and whale sharks.
DAVID HELVARG is the President of the Blue Frontier Campaign and the author of five books: Saved by the Sea, Blue Frontier, The War Against the Greens, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean and Rescue Warriors.