By The Blue Frontier Campaign
America is and always has been an Oceanic society. From the Bering Sea Land-bridge to the Jamestown Settlement to the processing lines of Ellis Island we have been a tempest tossed people, a saltwater people, a coastal people.
We have lived well on the abundance of our seas and coastlines from the earliest canoe tribes setting fish-traps along the Jersey shore, to today’s giant gantry crane operators unloading container ships at the Port of Long Beach.
As the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy Draft Report emphasizes, America owes much of its wealth, bounty and heritage to the blue in our red, white and blue. It provides us the oxygen we need to breath, is a driver of climate and weather, brings rain to our farmers and food to our tables. It provides us recreation, transportation, food, medicine, energy, security, and a sense of awe and wonder from sea to shining sea.
Our oceans also extend our identity as a frontier nation. Unfortunately our frontier waters are facing a cascading series of disasters that could turn America and the world’s oceans into dead seas within our lifetime. We are witnessing the collapse of marine wildlife with over 90% of the world’s large fish decimated by unrestrained global fishing. We’re seeing our nearshore waters poisoned by toxic and nutrient runoff from factory farms and city streets, leading to growing numbers of beach closures, harmful algal blooms and oxygen-depleted dead zones where nothing can live. Uncontrolled coastal sprawl is degrading and destroying the salt-marshes, mangroves, seagrass meadows, and barrier islands that act as the filters and nurseries of the seas, while fossil-fuel fired climate change, which the draft report unfortunately fails to address in a meaningful way is causing sea-level rise, beach erosion, coral bleaching and intensified hurricanes that put growing numbers of Americans at risk.
What the Draft report confirms is that there are common sense solutions that can save our blue frontier. Protecting and restoring our nation’s public seas makes sense both morally and economically. Healthy seas also help assure vibrant coastal communities and economies.
Protecting our blue frontier has to be as integral a part of our public polices as protecting our terrestrial environment, our trade routes, our health, our sciences, and our national security, because in the end, they too depend on our oceans. Just as broad sectors of the nation mobilized in the last century for passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that have helped revitalize our environment, and improved the quality of our lives, the time is right for an American Oceans Act for the 21st Century.
Having reviewed the Ocean Commission Draft Report and its more than 200 recommendations, we believe that the following key principles should to be incorporated in US Ocean Policies and also be used to inform any Ocean Act that Congress may pass.
1. Protect Marine Wildlife and unique marine habitats and ecosystems and restore America’s once great commercial and recreational fisheries through science-based management. This will be rooted in the precautionary principle that focuses on erring on the side of what is known about how marine ecosystems function. Commit the funding necessary to reduce overcapacity and harmful practices in our fishing fleet while assuring the long-term viability of fishing communities through collaborative efforts free of conflict-of-interest.
Expand the commitment to ocean exploration and science needed to better understand our living seas, while fully protecting special areas of interest in our public seas such as unique coral reefs, deep-sea sponge gardens, submarine mountains, and kelp forests.
2. Reduce polluted runoff into coastal waters. Establish and cap total daily maximum loads for pollutants flowing down America’s rivers and waterways. Commit to upgrading our national sewage treatment infrastructure to improve both public health and the environment. Commit to nutrient reduction programs for agriculture, urban storm drains, tailpipe emissions and other sources, and expand public education on the problems of dumping waste on streets and down storm drains. Reduce the dumping of toxic wastes and plastics into our waters. Assure that shipping and port operations are done in a coordinated, economically and environmentally beneficial way that does not spread contaminated sediments or exotic species.
3. Establish watershed based regional planning that recognizes the link between land and water protection for our families and our future. Develop incentives for more permeable roads, parking lots, and other urban surfaces to reduce polluted runoff and recharge our aquifers. Through zoning, tax-incentives and other democratic means encourage sustainable development that includes urban brown fields, conservation easements, and setbacks from high-risk areas of coastal flooding and erosion. Assure public access to public beaches. Reform or eliminate federal subsidies that place people in harm’s way. Expand the Coastal Barrier Resources Act to protect those areas at highest risk of storm surge and flooding, while providing full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Work for full and vigorous enforcement of Clean Water Act provisions that protect coastal wetlands and salt marshes.
4. Control and mitigate climate change impacts. It’s unfortunate the commission draft report did not more fully address the critical role of human-enhanced climate change on our oceans. We need to commit full funding to the Estuaries Restoration Act, and support efforts to restore coastal Louisiana, the Everglades, and other projects that enhance mangroves, salt marshes, barrier islands, coral reefs, and other ecosystems that act as protective storm barriers for America’s coastlines. Support efforts aimed at a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable non-carbon based energy systems, including a full re-evaluation of energy-development in our offshore waters. By becoming a leader in new energy technologies the United States will not only help protect itself from the impacts of climate change, but can also regain its competitive edge in the global energy market while achieving true energy independence. and the need
5. Create a new model of public governance for our public seas. Recognizing all Americans have a common stake in our Blue Frontier we need to unify America’s ocean management systems. This has to be based on the precautionary principle (what the report calls ecosystems management), a recognition of the unitary nature of water from the top of our watersheds to the depths of our seas, and an understanding that when we do harm to the parts, we damage the whole.
Ocean Management should be multi-jurisdictional, open to public participation, and transparent. Decision-making should be based on the best available science and the ethical standards of society.
At the regional level it should be organized around watersheds rather than arbitrary political boundaries and include participants from local, state, tribal and federal agencies.
Nationally there should be an independent ocean agency, a kind of EPA for the seas, whose primary mission is the sustainable use, exploration, protection and restoration of America’s seas as a common public trust. In addition, following the Commission recommendation, there should be an interagency national oceans council within the executive branch to coordinate the work of all agencies that impact America’s seas.
We believe this is all necessary and achievable but only when we’re able to mobilize a seaweed rebellion of citizen activism and convince large sectors of the public who get so much out of our living seas that it’s now time to give something back. As has been said before, when the people lead the leaders will follow.