• Report: New National Ocean Council process to be ‘fair and transparent’

    By Laurie Schreiber | Dec 15, 2010

    (Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) The new National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and Great Lakes designates nine regional planning areas.

    Brewster, Mass. — The New England Fisheries Management Council recently heard a report on the new National Ocean Council, which was created by President Barack Obama over the summer.

    On July 19, Obama signed an executive order establishing a National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and Great Lakes and creating the National Ocean Council. According to a press release from the Executive Office of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C., the policy is designed to strengthen ocean governance and coordination, establish guiding principles for ocean management, and adopt a flexible framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning to address conservation, economic activity, user conflict, and sustainable use of the ocean, the coasts and the Great Lakes.

    The National Ocean Council was set up to implement the national policy, the release said. The NOC will coordinate federal government agencies and will formally engage with state, tribal and local authorities.

    The policy comes at a time when there is a growing number of competing demands on the nation’s oceans and coasts, the release said.

    The NOC will pursue “a flexible framework for coastal and marine spatial planning to address conservation, economic activity, user conflict, and sustainable use of the ocean, our coasts and the Great Lakes,” the release said.

    “The National Policy includes a set of guiding principles for management decisions and actions toward stewardship that 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. It prioritizes actions, including ecosystem-based management, regional ecosystem protection and restoration, and strengthened and integrated observing systems that seek to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. These strategies and objectives provide a bridge between the National Policy and action on the ground.

    “The National Policy identifies coastal and marine spatial planning as a priority. Marine spatial planning offers a comprehensive, integrated approach to planning and managing uses and activities over the long term.Under the National Policy, coastal and marine spatial planning would be regional in scope, developed cooperatively among Federal, state, tribal, and local authorities, and include substantial stakeholder, scientific, and public input.

    The coastal and marine spatial planning framework:

    • Establishes a new regional approach to how we use and protect the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes to decrease user conflicts, improve planning and regulatory efficiencies and decrease costs and delays, and preserve critical ecosystem services.

    • Creates a comprehensive alternative to sector-by-sector and statute-by-statute decision-making.

    • Establishes regional planning bodies, bringing federal, state, and tribal partners together in an unprecedented manner to jointly plan for the future of the ocean, the coasts and the Great Lakes.

    • Ensures science-based information is at the heart of decision-making.

    • Emphasizes stakeholder and public participation.”

    Sam Rauch, the deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs with the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the NEFMC that the NOC is tasked with addressing management and jurisdictional issues through an ecosystem-based approach that looks beyond single-species and single-sector management.

    The new policy is designed to incorporate input at all stakeholder and governance levels, from local to federal, he said.

    “Often, NOAA doesn’t have the tools, or we’re not where we want to be on ecosystem-based management,” Rauch said. “But we’re striving to improve it.”

    To date, he said, management of marine and coastal resources has involved a multitude of jurisdictional and legislative entities that often work at cross-purposes. The NOC is designed to provide a mechanism for such entities to work in tandem and resolve conflicting policies, Rauch said.

    Areas of emphasis, he said, include climate adaptation and ocean acidification – “dealing with not whether these are occurring but with how we can adapt to them,” he said.

    Rauch also said that regional ecosystem protection and restoration is important.

    “We do a good job around the country on small-scale projects – rivers, harbors,” Rauch said. “This is a chance to look at large areas – for example, the Chesapeake Bay, where the need is so broad that local jurisdictions have trouble dealing with it. But the federal government can look at it holistically.”

    Sustainable water quality practices on land will be another area of emphasis, Rauch said.

    “Whatever we do upstream can have a profound effect on the ocean,” he said. “There needs to be recognition that activities on land are part of our ocean policy. If we allow environmental degradation on land, we are, by default, making statements of what the health of the oceans will be.”

    Other areas of importance, he said, include species and habitat conservation, and improvement of ocean observing systems. The need for better coastal marine spatial planning has become increasingly apparent as the oceans become more crowded, Rauch said.

    “We can no longer expect that, as fishermen go out to fish, they will be the only ones on the ocean,” he said.

    Other uses of the ocean, he said, include aquaculture, energy development and navigation.

    “There’s a need to look at what we do on the oceans in a holistic manner rather than on a sector-by-sector basis,” he said. “We need to look at the cumulative impacts of what humans do on the ocean.”

    Decisions affecting fisheries, for example, need to take into account their impact on other ocean users, as well as the ocean resource itself, he said.

    “So there’s need for us to look forward, without a particular project on the table, to plan where we can get synergies and where it makes sense to preserve things,” he said.

    The concept of coastal marine spatial planning is not a mechanism to create marine protected areas, Rauch said. It is, rather, a mechanism to ensure the orderly economic development of the ocean ecosystem , in a sound manner.

    “Healthy economies require healthy ecosystems,” Rauch said.

    The policy recognizes that whatever planning is done it must be open to all stakeholders, not just particular interest groups, and it must be a fair and transparent process, Rauch said.

    Although the policy sets a national agenda, it also seeks to recognize regional differences, Rauch said.

    “What may work in New England may not work in Alaska,” he said. “So the policy is intentionally vague. It’s a recognition that a lot of decisions need to be made by the regions themselves, reflecting the unique character of that region.”

    As a priority objective, coastal and marine spatial planning was given a framework that divides the nation into nine regional planning areas:

    — Northeast Region – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
    — Mid- Atlantic Region – Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
    — South Atlantic Region – Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
    — Gulf of Mexico Region- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
    — Caribbean Region – Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.
    — Great Lakes Region – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
    — Alaska/Arctic Region – Alaska.
    — Pacific Islands Region – Hawaii, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Guam.
    — West Coast Region – California, Oregon and Washington.

    Each region will have a corresponding regional planning body consisting of federal, state and tribal representatives to develop regional goals, objectives and plans.

    Rauch said the National Ocean Council is in the process of working with the states and tribes to create the regional planning bodies. If states or tribes do not join the planning bodies, Rauch said, the federal government will proceed on its own.

    “But we want the states as partners,” he said.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also be active in all nine planning bodies, he said.

    “This is not intended to be a new layer of bureaucracy or regulation. This is intended to be forward looking,” he said. “This is a ground-up approach and there’s some vagueness in the process, partly because there are existing bodies already. They’re doing good work right now and we didn’t want to overturn that. We want to figure out how the existing organizations already function.”

    The bodies will be inclusive, rather than exclusive, he said.

    “I think the table should be quite large. I think everybody should be at the table,” Rauch said. “There is a concern on the parts of other agencies of this getting out of hand. NOAA believes that this should be an open-ended process, that more people should be at the table. But the policy did come out and limit it to jurisdictional entities.”

    There is some thought, he said, that Canada and Mexico should be included in the planning process as well.

    “Because this is a United States policy, we didn’t want to impose on Canada,” Rauch said. “But if they choose to participate, we’d be happy to have them….We do want to make sure that all stakeholders have the ability to participate in the process.”

    Rauch said that the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an example of how federal agencies might better have worked together.

    “Had NOAA been more involved in that process, some of the ultimate issues might have been avoided,” he said. “So there is recognition that the federal agencies, if they look beyond their narrow jurisdiction, can work together better. But there’s also recognition that problems are just going to increase as oceans become more crowded and we’re going to have to get better at working together.”

    One NEFMC representative wanted to know if the policy positions commercial fisheries as an important user of the oceans.

    “This is a national policy and fisheries are just one of the economic drivers,” Rauch said. “No use of the ocean was originally highlighted as important. We made efforts to improve that because of the vocal comments we received. I think it’s important that this organization and the fishing interests across the country stay involved in process. If you stay involved, then fishing interests will be adequately represented. NMFS is an active participant. But we can’t substitute for the stakeholders themselves.”

    According to information on the National Ocean Council website (whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/oceans), the NOC held its inaugural meeting on Nov. 12. At that meeting, the group approved a plan to formally engage, state, tribal and local authorities and established working groups aimed at establishing public and stakeholder communication.

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