Healthy Oceans Blog

Origins of Our National Ocean Policy

To understand the value of our National Stewardship Policy for the Ocean, Our Coasts and Great Lakes, we first need to know where the need for it comes from. The short answer? Our nation’s ocean leaders have long called for a comprehensive ocean policy. Yet the full answer is a bit more detailed and worth understanding.

In 2000, two blue-ribbon bipartisan commissions were established to undertake the first comprehensive review of our nation’s use of the ocean and status of our ocean resources since the original Stratton Commission in 1969, which helped lead to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Just think of the difference thirty years makes in how our nation uses, manages, protects and even feels about our ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources. Neither the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act nor the Marine Mammal Protection Acteven existed. Needless to say, a review of our nation’s management was long overdue and Congress and the broader ocean community realized it.

So Congress, with the support of President Clinton, created the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (U.S. COP) through passage of the Oceans Act of 2000, with membership appointed by George W. Bush and chaired by Admiral James T. Watkins of the United States Navy. The Act charged the Commission with writing recommendations on a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy.

Concurrently, the Pew Charitable Trusts created the independent Pew Oceans Commission to undergo a similar review of U.S. policy regarding our oceans and coasts and status of our ocean resources. The Honorable Leon Panetta chaired the Pew Oceans Commission with Commissioners from diverse backgrounds in science, fishing, policy and philanthropy.

Both Commissions undertook intense multi-year policy reviews, and in doing so spent a good portion of their time engaging the public by soliciting opinions and feedback from citizens, ocean users, the ocean industry, and scientific experts. In 2003, the Pew Oceans Commission released its report, America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. In 2004, the U.S. COP released its report, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century. Both reports called for a unified and comprehensive National Ocean Policy as a foundational element to update and reform U.S. ocean policy.

In 2004, the Bush Administration released a U.S. Ocean Action Plan, its response to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s report. Beyond that, action on reforming the ocean seemed to stall, as Congress was ultimately unwilling to lead, regardless of the tireless advocacy and championing for the commissions’ findings by Representative Sam Farr, members of both sides of the aisle, and the U.S. COP and Pew Commissioners.

In 2009, President Obama helped breathed life into the commissions’ recommendations by issuing a Memorandum establishing the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (Task Force) calling for recommendations on a clear national policy for the protection of the oceans, our coasts and Great Lakes. Led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Task Force was comprised of senior-level policy officials from across the Federal Government.

The Task Force was specifically asked to develop recommendations on:

  • A national policy that ensures the protection, maintenance and restoration of the health of the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes.
  • A national framework to allow the coordination of policy efforts to improve stewardship of the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.
  • An implementation strategy that identifies a set of priority objectives for meeting the objectives of the national policy.

The Memorandum also asked the Task Force to develop a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning (CMSP) (aka marine planning, ocean planning) that utilizes a comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based management approach and addresses conservation, economic activity, user conflict and sustainable uses of the ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources.

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 to help develop a policy that would protect, maintain, and restore our oceans and coasts so we can continue to fish, swim and enjoy them for generations to come. The resulting reports are a testament to the Task Forces’ outreach efforts. The Task Force released an Interim Report in September 2009 and an Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning in December 2009. The Task Force received and reviewed close to 5,000 written comments from Congress, stakeholders, and the public before finalizing its recommendations.

In the time between completion of the majority of the Task Force’s work and its Final Recommendations, the Deepwater Horizon blowout and resulting eighty-seven days of unabated flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico occurred. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and resulting environmental crisis created a stark reminder of how vulnerable our marine environments are, and how much communities and the Nation rely on healthy and resilient ocean and coastal ecosystems.

It is under that backdrop that, on July 19, 2010, President Obama established our nation’s first comprehensive stewardship policy for the oceans, our coasts, and Great Lakes (aka the National Ocean Policy) via Executive Order 13547. The National Ocean Policy is based on the U.S. Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force’s Final Recommendations released the same day and adopted by the Executive Order. The Final Recommendations call for the National Ocean Policy and a set of nine overarching guiding principles called the “priority objectives” for management decisions and actions toward achieving the vision of “an America whose stewardship ensures that the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes are healthy and resilient, safe and productive, and understood and treasured so as to promote the well-being, prosperity, and security of present and future generations.” These recommendations were based on full stakeholder engagement from diverse ocean interests, including scientists, surfers, fishermen, industry, conservationists, and coastal managers.

The National Ocean Policy is a policy steeped in the rich maritime history of our nation, and crafted by bipartisan ocean experts over ten years ago through countless hours spent reviewing policy and speaking with ocean users and experts. It is not a partisan knee jerk reaction to over-regulating our ocean space. It instead directs federal executive agencies with existing management and protection responsibilities over ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources to implement those recommendations under the coordination of the National Ocean Council. The National Ocean Policy is meant to strengthen ocean governance coordination and reduce the patchwork regulatory environment through enhanced coordination and collaboration of our federal agencies while listening to regional leaders and ocean users. THAT is our National Ocean Policy.