National Ocean Policy Background

“A Policy for the Oceans, Our Coasts & Great Lakes”


The United States is a true maritime nation. We have plied the open ocean for centuries making our living off its bounty. Over fifty percent of our population today call the coasts and islands our home and many of us visit time and time again, gaining comfort in its very existence. We know that oceans, coasts, islands and Great Lakes are incredible natural wonders containing diverse wildlife, immense underwater volcanoes, vents, and mountain ranges, and many other discoveries our scientists will someday make. We also know that ensuring the health and resiliency of our oceans, coasts, islands and Great Lakes is crucial to the health of both the nation’s environment and its economy.

Yet our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes face significant challenges to their health and their ability to provide the very benefits that we all want and rely upon. These problems may come in the form of algal blooms that cause beach closures and damage shellfish farms or nutrient pollution from streets and farm runoff that can impact water quality and wildlife. In addition, the stressors of ocean acidification and climate change will cause massive disruptions to fish and shellfish populations.

Being able to solve ocean and coastal management challenges is difficult for federal and state agencies to do with the tools and resources they now have. Yet, as our nation’s population expands along our coasts and demands more from our oceans, these current challenges are only going to become more difficult.

The National Ocean Policy provides better management tools to help tackle the serious ocean and coastal management problems of today and the future. In coordinating the work of federal agencies through the National Ocean Council, the National Ocean Policy encourages states, tribes, federal agencies and all stakeholders — including the public — to work together to help address some of the biggest challenges facing our oceans, coasts, islands and Great Lakes and create better solutions for ocean health and better management of these incredibly important resources.



A National Ocean Policy has been called for by diverse ocean leaders for over ten years — including two blue ribbon bipartisan commissions. Congress created the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in 2000, with membership appointed by George W. Bush and chaired by Admiral James T. Watkins. The independent Pew Oceans Commission, also created in 2000, was chaired by the Honorable Leon Panetta. Both commissions undertook comprehensive reviews of our nation’s varied ocean management policies. In 2003 and 2004, the commissions released detailed reports, in which both called for a unified and comprehensive National Ocean Policy as a foundational element to update and reform U.S. ocean policy.

potus-oceanpolicyIn 2009 President Obama issued a Memorandum calling for recommendations on a clear national policy for the protection of the oceans, our coasts and Great Lakes, and established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (Task Force) to carry out this mission. 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 (marine 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 Task Force released an Interim Report (pdf) in September 2009 and an Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (pdf) 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.

The Task Force developed final recommendations to the President, that, along with a National Ocean Policy also included a set of 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 are based on full stakeholder engagement from diverse ocean interests, including scientists, surfers, fishermen, industry, conservationists, and coastal managers.

In the time between completion of the majority of the Task Force’s work and the establishment of the National Ocean Policy, 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 creates 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.

National Stewardship Policy


On July 19, 2010 President Obama established our nation’s first comprehensive stewardship policy for the oceans, our coasts, and Great Lakes. The National Ocean Policy is based on the U.S. Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force’s final recommendations, which call for the establishment of national policy for the stewardship of the oceans, our coasts, and Great Lakes (National Ocean Policy). The National Ocean Policy directs federal executive agencies with existing management and protection responsibilities over ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources to implement, to the extent practicable, those recommendations under the coordination of a National Ocean Council to strengthen ocean governance and coordination.

The framework has three main components: First is the coordination component, found within the National Ocean Council. The National Ocean Council is charged with implementing the National Ocean Policy and coordinating with its members.  Membership of the National Ocean Council includes the following entities:

  • The Secretaries of: State, Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security
  • The Attorney General
  • The Administrators of: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • The Chairs of: The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • The Directors of: the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), National Intelligence, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • The Assistants to: the President for National Security Affairs, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, Domestic Policy, Economic Policy, and Energy and Climate Change
  • An employee of the United States designated by the Vice President
  • The Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere (NOAA Administrator)

For more on the National Ocean Council and structure please visit the White House National Ocean Policy website.

After Coordination Comes Content

The second component to the National Ocean Policy is found in the nine National Priority Objectives. These objectives are the substantive ways the federal government will implement the National Ocean Policy through actions they take in fulfilling existing responsibilities to protect and manage the oceans, our coasts and Great Lakes.

1. Ecosystem-Based Management:  Adopt ecosystem-based management as a foundational principle for the comprehensive management of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.

2. Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning:  Implement comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management in the United States.

3. Inform Decisions and Improve Understanding:  Increase knowledge to continually inform and improve management and policy decisions and the capacity to respond to change and challenges. Better educate the public through formal and informal programs about the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.

4. Coordinate and Support:  Better coordinate and support Federal, State, tribal, local, and regional management of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. Improve coordination and integration across the Federal Government and, as appropriate, engage with the international community.

5. Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification:  Strengthen resiliency of coastal communities and marine and Great Lakes environments and their abilities to adapt to climate change impacts and ocean acidification.

6. Regional Ecosystem Protection and Restoration:  Establish and implement an integrated ecosystem protection and restoration strategy that is science-based and aligns conservation and restoration goals at the Federal, State, tribal, local, and regional levels.

7. Water Quality and Sustainable Practices on Land:  Enhance water quality in the ocean, along our coasts, and in the Great Lakes by promoting and implementing sustainable practices on land.

8. Changing Conditions in the Arctic:  Address environmental stewardship needs in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent coastal areas in the face of climate-induced and other environmental changes.

9. Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Observations, Mapping, and Infrastructure:  Strengthen and integrate Federal and non-Federal ocean observing systems, sensors, data collection platforms, data management, and mapping capabilities into a national system and integrate that system into international observation efforts. 

Marine Planning

Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) boundaries are identified as the regional planning scale to initiate CMSP

Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) boundaries are identified as the regional planning scale to initiate CMSP

The third and final component to the National Ocean Policy is marine planning. As stated via the National Ocean Council:

“Marine planning is a science-based tool that regions can use to address specific ocean management challenges and advance their economic development and conservation objectives. Marine planning will support regional actions and decision-making and address regionally determined priorities, based on the needs, interests, and capacity of a given region. Just as Federal agencies work with States, tribes, local governments, and users of forests and grasslands, among other areas, marine planning will provide a more coordinated and responsive Federal presence and the opportunity for all coastal and ocean interests in a region to share information and coordinate activities. This will promote more efficient and effective decision-making and enhance regional economic, environmental, social, and cultural well being. In turn, regional actions will support national objectives to grow the ocean economy, increase regulatory efficiency and consistency, and reduce adverse impacts to environmentally sensitive areas.”

The Final Recommendations 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 is tasked with creating marine spatial plans. You can find details on marine planning in the Regional Coordination Efforts section of our website.

The National Ocean Policy is our nation’s first policy to protect, maintain and restore the oceans, our coasts and Great Lakes. But how it is actually being implemented?

How does this all happen? One word, Implementation!

The National Ocean Policy’s implementation strategy looks to the nine priority objectives as those activities necessary to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the oceans, our coasts, and Great Lakes.  The National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan (Plan) translates the National Ocean Policy and its priority objectives into “in-the-water” actions federal agencies will take to advance the Policy’s vision of ensuring healthy oceans and coasts, providing the benefits we demand from our oceans while creating stronger economies for our coastal communities. The 200 plus actions reflect an assessment of stakeholder feedback and identify the most pressing challenges and available resources. The Plan seeks to create commonsense good government to help spur our ocean-dependent economies, empower states and communities to care for their coasts, and foster better coordination.

Since the release of the Final Implementation Plan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released the Federal Oceanic Fleet Status Report and opened a new rule-making to restart the National Marine Sanctuary nomination process through a community-based proposal format. Both actions were called for in the Plan’s 2013 actions. The National Ocean Policy is clearly being implemented with existing resources and through the current laws and established programs of the federal entities that make up the National Ocean Council. Visit our National Ocean Policy Documents to find the these and other recent documents by the federal agencies working to implement the National Ocean Policy.

Implementation Timeline

Below is a broad timeline for the process by which the National Ocean Policy is being implemented. Please coast over to Coalition News to see what new implementation actions are underway, to Regional Coordination Efforts to find what regions are working on marine planning, and to our Regional Events Calendar to see how you can engage in implementation activities.