The Blue Squad

President Obama's Ocean Task Force Is Making Progress

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco (left) and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen in Alaska as part of Obama"s Ocean Task Force.
© U.S. Coast Guard

President Obama’s Ocean Task Force is underway. On September 17, they released the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force Interim Report for a 30-day public review and comment period. "This Interim Report…delivers on President Obama"s request for recommendations that will move this country towards a more robust national policy for our oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes and recognizes that we have a responsibility to protect the oceans and coasts for the benefit of current and future generations," said Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

According to a recent press release, under the proposal, the CEQ and the Office of Science and Technology Policy "would lead an interagency National Ocean Council to coordinate ocean-related issues across the Federal Government and the implementation of the National Ocean Policy. Such a governance structure, combined with sustained high-level staff involvement, would ensure that these areas are a priority throughout the federal government."

What struck me about watching the first hearing in Anchorage, Alaska, on August 21—on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) streaming video—was both the civility, and the unique pride of Alaskans in their largely intact (though threatened) marine environment. There were no town-hall-from-hell shout downs, no talk about Ocean Death Panels with government bureaucrats deciding which fish will live and which will die. People disagreed but with respect.

But mostly those who testified in front of Sutley, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and other task force members who’d just completed a multi-day tour of the melting Arctic (including the whale bone pile outside Barrow where polar bears feed) agreed on the need to better protect our northern waters. The hearing was dominated by Native Alaskans, environmentalists and fishermen who wanted no part of oil drilling in the Arctic or Bristol Bay, ocean acidification and other fossil-fuel driven problems, and were skeptical of mining and other threats to what many Eskimo witnesses referred to as “our garden,” the ocean that gives them their sustenance.

A few witnesses from the oil industry repeated the mantra that it’ll be a long time before oil and gas stops being ” part of the energy mix,” especially when there’s so much offshore oil still to be drilled. A few state officials and tourism folks bragged about how well Alaska did things and the need for federal state partnerships. And then a few folks inevitably talked about their own agendas and fears. What was great was after an hour of panels and two hours of open mic statements, the task force members were willing to stay on until everyone who wanted to speak had their chance.

The coming dates for Task Force Listening Sessions are:
Sept. 24: Providence, RI Convention Center. 4-7 p.m.
Sept. 29: Honolulu, HI
Oct. 19: New Orleans, LA
Oct. 29: Cleveland, OH

CONTACTS:Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force; Blue Frontier Campaign

DAVID HELVARG is an environmental author and activist, and the president of the Blue Frontier Campaign.