National ocean policy makes sense

Posted Feb. 07, 2010, at 7:24 p.m.

If you want to understand the economic and cultural importance of the ocean, you need look no farther than the coast of Maine. For the last 10 years, I’ve watched the comings and goings of seafaring folks on Cobscook Bay. I’m one of those nonresident taxpayers, those people from away, who show up at odd times of the year to soak in the Maine coast. Through rain, sun and tropical storms, my daughter and I have spent summers camping on our property in North Lubec, waking early to watch the seals and lobstermen make their rounds.

It is easy to the think of the ocean as a vast resource, but it only takes a few days on the waters of Cobscook Bay to realize how crowded parts of the ocean have become. In North Lubec, the bay is narrow enough to row across, yet this small body of water is home to lobstering, clamming, periwinkle and rockweed harvesting, salmon aquaculture, whale watching and proposals for liquid natural gas plants and tidal power. Second-home owners, hotels and fishermen compete for coastal access and waterfront.

Add to that the fact that the bay is bordered by the U.S., the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Canada and split up the middle by a shipping channel and you wonder how anything happens on the bay without ending up in a fistfight (and sometimes it does).

The challenges of managing ocean uses in this little piece of paradise are not unique to Maine. Nationwide, we require a lot from our seas — from fishing to shipping and energy development. Right now our oceans and coasts are governed by more than 140 laws and 20 different agencies, each with different goals and often conflicting mandates. There’s no unifying policy or coordination in planning.

Instead, we evaluate development plans on a “first come, first served” basis. The result is ocean sprawl, with little thought given to selecting the best places for particular uses. This pressures our already-stressed oceans more than we need to, and in turn, jeopardizes the food, jobs and recreation they provide.

The Obama administration has proposed a new national ocean policy that could provide a more consistent and rational approach to dealing with our crowded oceans. Like a Clean Air Act for our air or a Clean Water Act for our water, a national ocean policy could provide a framework to make sure that our oceans and coasts live up to their economic and ecological potential. From rejuvenating fish populations to reducing pollution, from dealing with the challenges of sea level rise to protecting ocean jobs and communities, a national ocean policy could strengthen the country’s ability to manage the ocean as a system, not a collection of lots of parts.

As part of the president’s proposed national ocean policy, the administration is working to create a state-federal partnership for coastal and marine spatial planning to help identify a better approach to coordinating uses in an increasingly crowded ocean. This process could help ensure that all levels of government, business interests, fisheries managers and conservation groups participate in decision-making and reach a common understanding of the goals of managing areas so that they can work together to achieve them.

The administration has announced an ambitious timeline for developing and implementing regional ocean plans over the next three to five years, but much of the details of the plan will be left to states and regions. That means Mainers will have an unprecedented opportunity to plan for the ocean they want — not just along the shores of Cobscook Bay, but for the Gulf of Maine as a whole. Mainers will need to start thinking about what exactly the state wants from its ocean. For example, how much of the state’s and region’s power should come from ocean sources such as wind and tidal energy? How many fishing jobs are critical to the state’s culture? How much protection do Maine’s coast and ocean require?

We need to support the administration’s effort to create a more rational and forward-thinking national ocean policy and a framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning. Ultimately, though, the national ocean policy will only be as good as we make it.

When the federal process unfolds, everyone in the state who cares about the ocean should take the time to invest in this process. Maine can lead the region and the country. An opportunity like this comes along only once.

Linwood Pendleton is the director of Ocean and Coastal Policy at The Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. He is part-time resident of Lubec.

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