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Unintended consequences in a new era for U.S. ocean policies

The federal government rescinded the Obama-era National Ocean Policy and replaced it with new policies intended to promote jobs and national security. Stanford experts examine potential unintended implications.

BY Nicole Kravec, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions
ClockJune 28, 2018

President Donald Trump recently rescinded the Obama-era National Ocean Policy, a comprehensive management strategy put in place in 2011 after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The repeal, which reversed restrictions on oil and gas drilling, was met with enthusiasm from oil and gas companies interested in offshore drilling, and from industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Lost in the praise, however, was a fact some might find surprising: Nearly three-quarters of the 3 million ocean-related jobs in the United States are based in recreation and tourism – industries dependent on healthy seas. Stanford Report spoke with environmental conservation expert Larry Crowder and environmental law expert Deborah Sivas to better understand the implications of the decision.

Ocean policy
Nearly three-quarters of the 3 million ocean-related jobs in the United States are based in recreation and tourism – industries dependent on healthy seas. New federal ocean policies may have negative implications for these sectors. (Photo credit: Harvey Spears/Marine Photobank)

Why and how was the National Ocean Policy created? What was significant about it?

LARRY CROWDER: The National Ocean Policy, or NOP, was based on the premise that a robust economy and jobs depend on a healthy ocean. The NOP signified the first time that ocean leadership was elevated to the White House level within the federal government. It was a result of decades of research, outreach and recommendations from different ocean policy commissions, including one established by President Bill Clinton and concluded under President George W. Bush. One of its hallmark achievements was creating a space for effective communication.

DEBORAH SIVAS: Communication was key to the NOP; it wasn’t all about hugging fish. To aid in fostering more effective engagement, the NOP created Regional Planning Bodies, allowing for conversations across federal agencies, states, tribes and fishery management councils, covering over 100 laws. Together these bodies developed regional ocean plans based on the understanding that ocean ecosystems and management challenges are intricately connected. They also defined principles to guide federal agencies in management, ensuring that the ocean is healthy and resilient.

How does the Trump administration’s new set of ocean policies differ from the National Ocean Policy?

SIVAS: We are seeing a shift toward valuing extractive resource use over maintaining a functional and productive ocean ecosystem. Tourism, recreation and fisheries all need a robust, healthy ocean ecosystem. This also signifies a handoff from the federal government to states, but with no resources or guidance. Other more conservative states like Florida are also showing concern, because industries like tourism and fishing, which provide great sources of economic strength, seem to be forgotten.

CROWDER: This new set of policies drastically diminishes federal engagement and reduces the communication that was found to be necessary for effective dialogue and action. Part of an effective ocean management planning process requires having an active dialogue with people who have the authority and responsibility to take action. This critical piece is absent from this new set of policies. The Regional Planning Bodies were eradicated altogether. Additionally, the new policies seem to convey that the only jobs that matter are in oil, gas and the military. What about tourism and fisheries? The marine tourism economy is the number one economic engine for California. To ignore that is stunning.

Are there similarities between the two sets of policies?

CROWDER: It does appear as though the publicly accessible regional ocean data portals that were created under the NOP will continue. There is an understanding of the need for decision-makers to be looking at the same maps, data and information across state and federal agencies, industry, conservation and researchers. However, although the data is open and accessible, the focus of data collection may shift.

SIVAS: We may start seeing these data portals evolve in a way that’s less about scientific data and perhaps more about energy and jobs. This new policy language may very well be connected to a bigger push for offshore oil and gas exploration.

What do the policy differences signify?

SIVAS:  This new set of policies elevates a couple industries, which is risky. It is unclear how these new policies will translate and exactly what will happen remains to be seen. Coastal managers will now need to double their efforts to coordinate with agencies and ramp up outreach efforts. The takeaways for states is that now there is a great need for them to step up as stewards of healthy ocean ecosystems that in turn promote balanced economic advancement.

CROWDER: Even if the new set of policies generates immediate benefits, state and regional planning may disappear. The long-term impact on the economy and jobs will be devastating and, ironically, counterproductive as a result. It will take years and years of work gluing the proverbial broken china back together again.

Crowder is the Edward Ricketts Provostial Professor of Marine Ecology and Conservation at Stanford Hopkins Marine Station, and also co-director of Stanford’s Osa & Golfito Initiative. Sivas is the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law and director of the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic. Crowder and Sivas are senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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