Anchorage, Alaska – August 21 – 150 People
The first 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 sustenance. Of the 60 public witnesses (following two expert panels) a few 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,” and therefore we should keep drilling. A few state officials and tourism folks bragged on 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.
San Francisco, CA – Sept. 17 – 500 People
500 people, including some dressed as salmon, rock fish and polar bears, participated on a workday afternoon saying Yes to the promise of a new (first ever) national ocean policy. Some 160 gave testimony that, after two panels of experts, was limited to two minutes per speaker, kind of like speed dating for the ocean. Most of the speakers represented West Coast elected officials such as Senator Boxer and the West Coast Governors who strongly endorsed the creation of a unified and ecosystem-based national ocean policy and environmental advocates ranging from fishermen, scientists and surfers to sea otter defenders and clean ocean energy promoters.
Providence, RI – Sept. 24 – 400 people
A range of citizens showed up in Rhode Island for the only eastern seaboard “listening session.” Over 60 gave public testimony including teachers, environmentalists, offshore wind advocates and opponents, fishermen (both pro and con) and New Englanders involved with ecosystem-based management plans in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and elsewhere. There was also a good-sized New Jersey Delegation and folks from as far away as South Carolina. Almost all of them wanted the federal government to do more to protect the ocean in collaboration with state and local agencies, though on a few issues such as offshore wind energy placement, they remained divided.
Honolulu, HI – Sept. 29 – Over 400 people
Over 400 people turned out during a workday in Honolulu and despite a Tsunami warning (Hawaii was spared but the Islands of Samoa took a terrible impact). The meeting also had video links to other islands and territories though they experienced some technical problems on the audio side. Also it was poorly moderated for time so that only 60 of the 90 people who wanted to testify had the opportunity. A good 80 percent of the testimony was favorable to a new national ocean policy. There was more passion in Hawaii and some very specific concerns about marine debris and the need to end the trade in tropical fish collecting for the aquarium trade. Several Native Hawaiians spoke of the need to link science with traditional knowledge while others spoke off topic (focusing on their sovereignty and independence claims). Speakers from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (recently investigated by the GAO) represented a muted opposition to the otherwise enthusiastic support for the national policy process.
New Orleans, LA – Oct. 19 – 250 people
The public listening session was held at the Audubon Aquarium (with live video links to Mississippi, Texas, Florida and Alabama). Most speakers expressed concern for the loss of Louisiana’s protective and productive wetlands. A few folks from Shell and other parts of the offshore oil industry argued that they were such good environmental stewards that we don’t really need the feds to do more. A few folks from the recreational fishing organization CCA also used the public listening session to complain that they’d been excluded from the public process. But over 75 percent of the speakers were supportive, seeking a “one stop shopping,” federal partner to help restore the wetlands and for other marine conservation partnerships and purposes.
Cleveland, OH – Oct. 29 – Over 100 people
The final of the six task force sessions took place at the downtown Marriot near Lake Erie. There was a good set of panels followed by over 30 public comments on invasive species and other threats to the lakes but also on how the Great Lakes restoration effort (that’s just won $475 million from Congress) could become a model for engaging a broad range of stakeholders to begin cleaning up all our public waters, salty as well as fresh. Despite ongoing problems, Erie and the other Great Lakes have made an incredible turn-around over the last 30 years thanks to a convergence of public will, good policy and the natural resiliency of even badly degraded ecosystems.
Today our oceans are badly degraded ecosystems but the establishment of an ecosystem-based National Ocean Policy could begin to turn the tide. At least that was the message from most people who turned out for these six critical “listening,” sessions.