‘National Ocean Policy’ and What It Really Means for Us

Shore fishing in NE

As the Northeast releases a regional plan and the Mid Atlantic gets ready to release theirs, we should be paying attention

Okay… This is not a sexy topic. And I hesitate to even write about it here, but damn if it isn’t important… For us… For everyone.

And frankly, most of us, including myself up until recently, just haven’t been paying all that much attention.

I’m guessing some, perhaps most, readers are wondering what the “National Ocean Policy” even is, so probably best if we start there.

A good two decades ago, congressional leaders began to recognize the need for some sort of coordinated policy to manage our oceans (and Great Lakes). This was not simply foresight… this was clear recognition of the increasing uses of ocean resources and the conflicts that had already begun to arise, not to mention the complete lack of coordination amongst literally dozens federal agencies tasked with managing ocean resources.

Back in 2000, under President G.W. Bush’s direction, Congress created the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. A few years later the commission released a detailed report, which in no uncertain terms spelled out the need for a coordinated, well thought out and vetted “National Ocean Policy.”

In 2009 the subsequent Administration established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force comprised of senior-level policy officials and led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. During the next year, the Task Force held hearings and meetings with ocean users from commercial and recreational fishing, shipping and ports, energy developers, conservationists, scientists and others, and then developed final recommendations.

In 2010, by Executive Order, the Administration adopted those recommendations and established a National Ocean Policy. The policy created a National Ocean Council of federal agencies and in 2013 it released an Implementation Plan.

So, what does the National Ocean Policy do?

For one, it requires coordination. “Fundamentally, the National Ocean Policy coordinates, through establishment of the National Ocean Council, the ocean-related activities of Federal agencies to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness, with a focus on reduced bureaucracy, improved coordination and integration, and fiscal responsibility.”

This is important, because right now it’s kinda of a (expletive) show. A patchwork of state and federal agencies govern ocean use, often with different goals and mandates, and often with little if any coordination. Absolutely that needs to change. Because for one, every managed activity affects another one. It’s just stupid that these agencies aren’t working in close collaboration.

Furthermore, with all these agencies going in different directions, there really isn’t any clear place for fishermen to engage on things like energy development/seismic testing, sand mining, cable laying, etc. Such coordination provides an opportunity for fishermen and other stakeholders to be involved early and have those voices heard.

Second, the Policy established National Priority Objectives. I’m not gonna list them all here, but there are some critical ones to us as fishermen. For instance it recommends the adoption of regional ecosystem-based management as a foundational principle. That simply means managing marine resources in a more holistic way with all aspects of the environment and marine animals in mind (think pollution, habitat, bait etc.). This is something that the recreational fishing community has been asking for, for the last two decades, and absolutely we should be supporting it here. Because if we don’t have healthy functioning ecosystems (again… think bait/habitat) we just don’t have the sort of abundance and opportunities that rod and reel guys need.

Yes, this sort of “ecosystem” talk seems to be scaring at least part of the commercial fishing industry, as managing ocean resources in an ecosystem context might require further regulations to protect habitat (e.g. hard corals) from gear like bottom trawls (e.g. freezing the footprint to where bottom trawls currently fish), but it really IS time we require ocean managers to keep EVERYTHING in mind when making decisions. I mean, come on, man… that just makes sense.

Perhaps most importantly, the Policy encourages “marine spatial planning.” This is basically a science-based method of better determining what should happen where. It involves a lot data-gathering which is currently taking place right now. For example, who fishes where? Where might conflicts arise? Where are the critical habitat spots? Where are the areas of ecological importance? The idea is to determine exactly where something like offshore energy can be developed without significantly disrupting the fishing or shipping industry’s current activities, or disrupting important habitat and/or ecologically important bottom, or major migration patterns, etc. Such planning would provide the opportunity for all ocean interests to share information and coordinate activities.

You may vaguely recall back in 2010, when the Administration started talking about the National Ocean Policy, some, ahem, less than informed soul wrote in a widely publicized ESPN column that the Obama Administration was banning all saltwater fishing.

I think we all know at this point that this never had an iota of truth to it, so I won’t harp. But there were a few who just assumed, without ever actually asking anyone or doing any research, that fishermen would be zoned out of certain areas as part of “spatial planning” or what many began to call “ocean zoning.” But, the fact is, the regional planning bodies are not regulatory or zoning bodies at all. They couldn’t exclude anyone even if they wanted to (and for the record they didn’t). Really, all this data-gathering/spatial planning is, well, really just so ocean managers have the information to make good decisions. I mean what reasonable person would oppose that?

Moving on, the final Policy split the nation into nine regional planning areas: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Islands, West Coast, Alaska/Arctic, and the Great Lakes. Each region could create its own marine spatial plans IF IT SO WISHED.

The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States formed regional planning bodies, which have thus far served as a forum for upfront collaboration and transparency. Stakeholders have been invited to come to meetings and discuss ocean conflicts, and how things could be improved. And they’ve actually developed draft plans!

As of right now, a draft of the Northeast plan has been completed and is out for comment and the Mid-Atlantic draft plan is expected soon. Both plans are on schedule to be sent to the National Ocean Council this fall, and to be approved by the end of the year. Once the feds sign off on a plan, it will guide their actions moving ahead. The West Coast has also recently decided to form a planning body, and will be having its first formal meeting this fall.

I’m still working my way through the 198-page Northeast plan. But my reaction right now is positive. It contains a lot of good stuff on conflict avoidance, consultation, consideration of all uses with a particular emphasis on fishing (like detailed maps developed with fishermen showing the current footprint) and recommendations to involve stakeholders like us early on in the process of deciding where projects might go.

Yet there is, of course, some pushback, mostly from the commercial fishing side, although I expect we’ll see some from the part of the recreational/for-hire community that generally have a negative knee-jerk reaction to any action that could be used to help improve fish stocks. And yes, there are plenty of folks who will oppose simply because this Ocean Policy stuff seems to have originated from the Obama Administration, when the fact of the matter is that it originated under the G.W. Bush Administration.

But wherever you stand, it’s important to keep in mind that this is good for us as fishermen, or even just general lovers of the ocean… For a multitude of reasons. I have yet to hear a compelling argument why it isn’t.

Stay tuned…

About John McMurray

Capt. John McMurray is the Owner/Operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, NY.

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