• Ocean zoning a hot topic for Begich

    By Laine Welch
    For the Alaska Journal of Commerce


    Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich is quick to name the issue giving him the biggest earful so far in his new post as Chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard: “marine spatial planning.”

    The concept is listed as a top priority by the 2010 National Ocean Council, which is already preparing to draft action plans on nine coastal/ocean objectives. It would affect all users and uses, on and beneath the oceans.

    “I hear it over and over again,” Begich said in a phone call from Washington, D.C. “Let’s call it like it is, pure and simple — ocean zoning. I don’t think Dr. (Jane) Lubchenco, the director of NOAA, appreciated my blunt categorization of it, but as a former mayor, that’s what it is. You are determining winners and losers in terms of utilization of the oceans, and that is what zoning does.

    “What is the value in it? And by what authority are they able to do this? In land use zoning there is a whole process you must go through by law. Here they are talking ocean zoning but there has yet to be any stakeholder involvement or economic analysis.”

    And just who are “they”?

    “It is a classic situation of people within the bureaucracy believing it’s a good thing to spend their time on regardless of cost,” Begich said, “when in reality, they have not worked with the stakeholders and they haven’t done their homework.”

    His biggest beef with ocean zoning plans is the $60 million price tag.

    “It’s money we don’t have,” Begich said. “With Congress reducing funding in so many areas, we can’t get ourselves stretched so thin that NOAA is doing new stuff that takes away from research and all the rest of the work that’s necessary to maintain our core missions.”

    Deadline to comment to the NOC on ocean zoning and other objectives is April 29, at www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/oceans.

    Begich said among the biggest threats to Alaska and U.S. fisheries is widespread poaching by foreign fleets, called Illegal, Unregulated, Unreported fishing, or IUU.

    “I will echo the late Sen. Ted Stevens that IUU fishing is growing to be more of a problem,” Begich said. “Foreign poachers are taking almost 20 percent of the worldwide seafood catch. That’s huge! And it is hurting the fishery resources and taking away from the people who are following all the rules.”

    Begich said a first line of IUU defense comes from the U.S. Coast Guard.

    “The Coast Guard needs additional resources for patrols and enforcement,” he said. “Even though we have tight fiscal constraints, this is one area that is worth the additional investment.”

    What’s the hold up with the U.S. not ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty, needed to negotiate Arctic Ocean uses and boundaries?

    “Part of it is we have a couple senators who believe that it will take away our sovereignty, and our ability to manage our own waters,” Begich said, adding that he is hopeful the LOST will be ratified this year.

    “When you think of the countries that have not signed on to it — Libya, Iran, North Korea — I’m not sure I want to be in that company, but we are. The reality is, every day we are not part of this agreement we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he said. “It is estimated that there is an area of the outer continental shelf the size of California that could be available for the U.S. to take rights to. But because we are not part of the treaty, we are unable to be at the table with other countries to negotiate boundaries and parcels that are under our control.”

    Speaking of his quick rise to the No. 5 leadership spot out of 51 Democrats and his chairmanship of the oceans subcommittee, Begich said: “If you asked me two years ago if I thought I’d have this opportunity so quick in my term, I would have told you no. I feel very honored. This is the committee that Ted Stevens had for many years, and it’s where the Magnuson Stevens-Act was developed. It’s very much what I would call an Alaskan committee with huge national interest as well.”

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