New push for national ocean policy timely for Maine

Posted Feb. 28, 2010, at 7:25 p.m.

At the end of last year, the Ocean Energy Task Force established by Gov. John Baldacci issued a landmark report laying out the opportunities and challenges of developing renewable ocean energy resources in the Gulf of Maine. Legislation calling for the state to implement the task force’s recommendations, which seek to balance development of renewable ocean energy with existing uses and strong environmental safeguards, will be introduced this year. This balancing act is also playing out at the national level as President Barack Obama’s Ocean Policy Task Force nears completion of its own recommendations for a national ocean policy.

In March, the Ocean Policy Task Force, a consortium of 24 federal agencies, will issue its final report with recommendations for a national ocean policy that ensures protection, maintenance and restoration of our oceans and coasts. The administration’s focus on this issue comes not a moment too soon.

Our oceans and coasts are under increasing pressure from an ever-widening array of human uses, including tourism, fishing, mining, shipping, oil and gas drilling and renewable energy development. With management of our oceans divided among 24 federal agencies trying to implement 140 distinct and sometimes conflicting laws, the ocean frontier is this century’s Wild West.

Maine is ahead of the curve. In designating three test sites for offshore energy projects last year, Maine sought input from a variety of stakeholders to ensure that renewable energy development, and the jobs and environmental benefits that come with it, will not come at the expense of damage to vulnerable marine habitats and wildlife, or to existing uses. New legislation will seek, in part, to coordinate planning and management among Maine’s various state agencies that have authority over our marine resources. Thanks to the work of the Ocean Energy Task Force, and the advances our state has made on developing sustainable fishing models, Maine is well on its way to a better system for maintaining its precious ocean resources.

A national ocean policy that balances strong protection of our valuable ocean assets with renewable energy development and other responsible ocean uses is a must. The waters off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are home to some of the country’s most unique habitat areas and endangered wildlife species. At the same time, New England’s oceans and coasts boast some of the most promising areas for offshore wind energy development in the country and provide $16.5 billion in annual revenue from recreational and commercial fishing and tourism alone.

Indeed, some of our country’s most remarkable natural treasures are far offshore and out of the public eye, but well within reach of the ravages of human hands, such as oil and gas drilling, bottom trawling and sand and gravel mining.

Consider Georges Bank, just 100 miles due east of Boston and one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world. Known the world over for its historic cod and haddock fisheries, few know about the magnificent deep-water canyons that radiate off its eastern edge and are home to a stunning array of deep-water corals, sponges, sea anemones and rare fish.

Off the coast of Maine lies Cashes Ledge, another biodiversity hot spot that supports an unusual and expansive deep-water kelp forest. And then there are Stellwagen Bank, Schoodic Ridge, Jordan Basin, Fippennies Ledge and Bear Sea Mount — all places with their own wondrous attributes. Without a unifying policy for stewardship and management of these valuable resources at the federal, state and regional level, their sustainability and the intricate web of life that depends on them is at risk.

Maine’s ocean energy bill, the Rhode Island ocean special area management plan and the recently released Massachusetts ocean management plan are leading examples to other coastal states and the federal government. They are models upon which we can build a strong national ocean policy that fulfills the president’s mandate to “maintain healthy, resilient, and sustainable oceans, coasts and Great Lakes resources for the benefit of this and future generations.”

President Obama has an excellent opportunity to create a truly historic policy that safeguards our ocean’s special areas and wildlife, enhances and empowers sustainable economic growth and the communities that rely on our marine resources, and facilitates clean, renewable energy. Upon receiving the Ocean Policy Task Force’s final report, he should issue an executive order to establish a national ocean policy that seizes this opportunity and creates a legacy for generations to come.

Sean Mahoney, vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine Advocacy Center, served as a member of the Ocean Energy Task Force.

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