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The Most Important Congressional Action on the Ocean You’ve Never Heard of

Posted On November 15, 2013 by

Aerial view of San Miguel Island of the Channel Islands, California

Photo: Jonathan Hubbell / Photo Contest 2011

Right now, Congress has a major opportunity to protect our ocean and coasts. It can create a National Endowment for the Oceans and safeguard the existing National Ocean Policy in one fell swoop.

How? Well, it’s a tale of two bills.

The House and the Senate both recently passed versions of a bill called the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), but their versions are different. The Senate version would establish a National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO), which would expand scientific research, provide planning and resource management, restore habitat and much more. Conversely, the House version not only fails to establish this endowment, it guts the existing National Ocean Policy (NOP) that ensures smart use of ocean resources.

Soon, a committee made up of members of Congress from both chambers will come together in a “conference” to combine the two bills into a single final version. The ocean will either get a big win or suffer a big loss.

What’s at stake?

Following the recommendations of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, NEO would invest in our ocean’s future. The endowment authorizes grants to state, regional and tribal entities as well as academic institutions and nonprofit organizations to support ocean and Great Lakes research and restoration projects such as:

  • Restoration of wetlands, coral reefs, sea grass beds and watersheds
  • Mapping, monitoring, observation and modeling of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes systems
  • Adaptation to the impacts of climate change and mitigation of coastal hazards, including infrastructure protection
  • Research and monitoring of ocean acidification, hypoxia and harmful algal blooms
  • Conservation of sensitive marine, coastal and Great Lakes species and their habitats
  • Baseline data collection, ecosystem assessments and mapping for use in planning for new sustainable ocean uses and protecting ecosystem health
  • Planning for sustainable coastal development

To put the importance of this work into perspective, consider that scientists estimate that we’ve explored less than 5 percent of the ocean, that 91 percent of ocean species remain undiscovered, and that we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the United States’ territorial ocean waters.

Moreover, NEO’s investments would create jobs and support coastal economies. They would also ensure that present and future generations benefit from the ecological, economic, educational, social, cultural, spiritual, nutritional and recreational resources of our ocean, coasts and Great Lakes.

Then, there’s the NOP. When it comes to making decisions that impact our ocean, every tool should be on the table for gathering and sharing information. The NOP is one of those vital, common-sense tools. It allows the entities responsible for ocean use planning to coordinate with each other, increasing efficiency and reducing redundancy.

The NOP also pushes ocean and coastal management out to the regional level, putting ocean management decisions in the hands of on-the-ground people and businesses that will be impacted by ocean management decisions. In the words of Sen. Edward Markey, opposing the National Ocean Policy is like opposing air traffic control.

Attacks on the NOP have ranged from hyperbolic to hysterical, with the latest one coming in the form of an amendment to WRDA offered by Rep. Bill Flores, who is not from a coastal district.

The “Flores rider” attempts to block full implementation of the NOP. It would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a key coastal and ocean management agency, from coordinating with coastal states, other federal agencies and the public as they engage in smart ocean planning.

Banning coordination between the Corps and these entities is misguided. Smart ocean planning is currently being used by several states – from Massachusetts to Oregon – with great success. Imposing such an arbitrary restriction harms states, the Army Corps, and the ocean and coastal economy.

A healthy ocean provides employment, direct economic benefits, recreation, wildlife habitat, cultural identity and indirect economic services like protection from natural disaster. Ocean Conservancy staff members are working hard on Capitol Hill to make sure the final bill is a win for the ocean and the people who rely on it. You can help by telling your member of Congress to support the National Endowment for the Oceans and oppose the anti-National Ocean Policy Flores rider in the WRDA bill.