White House finalizes national ocean policy

April 16, 2013

The White House on Tuesday issued its final plan for managing the nation's oceans, outlining a strategy that aims to coordinate the work of more than two dozen agencies and reconcile competing interests including fishing, offshore energy exploration and recreational activities.

While environmentalists as well as some fishing industry officials and state authorities have embraced the National Ocean Policy, it has infuriated conservatives, who describe it as an example of how the Obama administration is overreaching and seeking to limit the rights of recreational anglers and others.Nancy Sutley, who chairs the Council on Environmental Quality and co-chairs the group overseeing the policy, said in a statement the plan “embodies the type of efficient, collaborative government that taxpayers, communities, and businesses expect from their federal government.”

John P. Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and co-chairs the National Ocean Council along with Sutley, said the plan “will help advance relevant science and its application to decision-making” regarding the ocean. Those measures include sharing data on severe storms and sea level rise, as well as melting ice in the Arctic.

Several House Republicans have predicted the policy will expand the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to regulate land-based activities since water from there eventually flows to the ocean:

"The National Ocean Policy is just another example of this administration’s determination to spread deeper regulatory authority over land, sea, and air, said Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.) in a statement. "Protecting our resources and empowering the communities that enjoy access to them is not a zero sum game.  We can achieve both, but not by enforcing more top-down mandates from Washington.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said he planned to press Sutley during a budget hearing Thursday about several aspects of the plan.

“Over the past two years, the Natural Resources Committee has repeatedly attempted to obtain information on the development, legal authority, regulatory burdens, staffing, and funding sources of this policy," Hastings said in a statement. "These questions, and many others, remained unanswered."

Administration officials have argued the plan does not authorize any new regulations or federal spending and instead will coordinate more than 100 different ocean laws. The plan was issued as a draft in January 2012, but the White House delayed finalizing it as it sought to address the concerns of interest groups ranging from farmers to offshore wind operators.

The National Corn Growers Association issued a statement saying it "appreciates the administration's outreach" on the plan, while the American Sportfishing Association president Mike Nussman issued a more nuanced assessment.

"In this plan, we see stronger acknowledgment of the importance public access for fishing and boating and the role state agencies can play in planning," Nussman said. "That's good, but recreational anglers and the sportfishing industry still want to see specific language that will prevent unwarranted loss of public access in any kind of new marine resource planning exercises."

Under the draft plan several regions of the country have already begun to establish planning bodies that would allow state and local officials to weigh in on federal ocean decisions. The Northeast, Mid Atlantic, Carribbean, and Pacific Islands have already established such groups, while the West Coast is working on forming one; Alaska has opted out of the process.

This year, federal authorities will work to streamline permitting for aquaculture operations under the plan, according to administration officials, while next year they will examine and rank how best to address communication gaps that exist in the Arctic region.

Sarah Chasis, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's ocean program, said the new policy represents a useful shift in the way the federal government responds to the threats the sea now faces: "With our oceans rapidly acidifying, coral reefs disappearing, entire species of fish and marine mammals being driven to the brink of extinction, and dead zones off our coasts growing exponentially in size, we need to act now.”

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