Obama’s New Frontier

In Defense of an Ocean Policy Task Force

President Reagan first established a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone stretching 200 miles out from America's shoreline.© University of Texas

More than a quarter century after President Reagan established a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching 200 miles out from America’s shoreline, a vast marine domain six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase, President Obama is moving towards a unified national ocean policy to oversee it. In June he established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to protect and manage this largest, most challenging wilderness frontier in our nation’s history and gave it until December to develop a plan for his approval.

Right now our public seas and waters are administered by more than 20 federal agencies, along with a welter of state, local and tribal authorities under 140 separate laws with little or no regard for the cumulative impacts of competing and often overlapping uses of our coasts and ocean. The result: Citizen stakeholders are drowning in red tape even as our marine ecosystems continue to degrade.

In six regional Task Force listening sessions around the nation, some 2,000 people turned out to be heard. Hundreds gave testimony while many more submitted written statements to the White House Council on Environmental Quality that’s leading the effort. Each meeting reflected its own set of geographic concerns, whether over the need to protect Arctic resources in Alaska, restore coastal wetlands in Louisiana or deal with invasive species like Asian carp in the Great Lakes. Still, a common theme among 75-80% of those who testified was support for the government taking a more unified approach in addressing environmental and safety concerns and the need for a single point of federal contact and collaboration for people working on solutions at the local, state and regional levels.

President Obama is moving towards a unified national ocean policy.© Huffington Post

An example of why a comprehensive approach is needed was reflected in a recent decision by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke (who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to ban commercial fishing in 250,000 square miles of climate-impacted Arctic waters north of the Bering Sea until the effects on this rapidly changing ecosystem are better understood. His decision was supported and encouraged by both commercial fishermen and environmentalists. At the same time, the Department of Interior continues to issue oil and gas drilling permits in these same high-risk waters ignoring the precautionary principle ("first, do no harm") being practiced by its sister agency. A comprehensive National Ocean Policy will prevent this kind of inconsistent stove-piped approach to managing our public waters.

On November 19, Blue Frontier Campaign sponsored a Lessons Learned/Next Step meeting for Seaweed Activists at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. Some 40 people representing several dozen groups participated live and by phone. We agreed that the ecosystem-based unified management message sent to the Task Force during the public meetings must be carried into their next report on Marine Spatial Planning due for release in December and their final report to the president expected some time in January. We also agreed that if, as expected, we have good recommendations from the Task Force, we should support an action-oriented Presidential Executive Order to carry them out.

Just as the 1983 executive order establishing a new EEZ ocean frontier may be one of Ronald Reagan’s least-known but most significant actions as president, an executive order establishing a national ocean policy for the practical use and long-term protection of our public seas could be one of Barack Obama’s outstanding achievements. After all, it’s not every president who gets to redefine a frontier or restore the blue in our red, white and blue.

DAVID HELVARG is an environmental author and activist, and the president of the Blue Frontier Campaign (www.bluefront.org).