What does the election mean for national ocean policy?

Answer: no big changes at NOAA, where the agency will try to consolidate all the new policies it developed during Obama’s first term. But what congress and the White House will do is more complicated.

One of my big concerns about a Romney win, was the loss of Dr Jane Lubchenco, who heads NOAA.  In this recent interview (published in ScienceInsider on Oct 4), Dr Lubchenco said she’d like to stay on for another four years, although Iv’e heard from a well-placed source that is very unlikely.  Frankly, her departure would be a big bummer: to me and for the oceans – nobody has done more to advance national marine policy.

If Obama wins a second term, one issue on the table will be the Administration’s National Ocean Policy. The White House wants to enhance collaboration between federal agencies that deal with ocean issues, organize marine data collected across the federal government, and give state and local governments a say in regional planning efforts that involve federal waters. The effort has become a favorite target for some Republicans in Congress as well as local fishing and industry groups, who argue that it is primarily designed to extend federal regulation in coastal areas. Lubchenco says that “there is a lot of misinformation out there about the [National Ocean Policy] and that is unfortunate; a lot of people got bogged down in the process and lost sight of the goals.” But she says many states are engaged in regional efforts to organize data and identify information gaps. States “are moving on with it,” she says. “There are some regions that are ready, willing, and able to do it.”

Lubchenco is upbeat on the status of U.S. fisheries: “It has not been broadly appreciated how significant the progress has been on ending overfishing.” After years of struggles, the federal government has finally legally required management plans in place for more than 500 fish stocks and “stock complexes” in federal waters, she notes. “Just having those is a major accomplishment … and they have teeth,” she says. She conceded that efforts to introduce market-based regulations into some fisheries, such as the allocation of tradable “catch share,” or quotas, has been controversial. “There has been a lot of noise around catch shares,” she says, but “for those fisheries for which catch shares are appropriate, they are a very powerful way of ensuring sustainable, economically viable fisheries that are working for fishers and fish. Gotta have both.”

Internationally, Lubchenco says NOAA is trying to “tackle head-on the problem of pirate fishing. The jargon term is ‘IUU’—illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing—but pirate fishing is a little more user-friendly. It is a major problem globally. As much as 40% of some fisheries are illegal, and it is devastating to many nations, especially developing nations.” The United States is working with numerous other nations to find ways to crack down on the practice, she says, including better enforcement, trade rules, and catch limits “based on science. … Imagine that!” Such reforms “will make a real difference,” she says, “if they can be sustained.”

Over at ClimateProgress Michael Conathan has a great and detailed piece that analyzes what the election means for ocean policy.  He agrees the outcome of the election is generally good news for ocean advocates, but as he explains, politics is complicated.  Several New England democrats have been fighting smart fisheries management reform for years, most notably Barney Frank (D).  Even Elizabeth Warren is against catch shares and John Kerry has said some really dumb things about fishing recently.  These Dems justify their opposition to simple new fisheries regulations on the fear of job losses, however, many of these programs, like catch shares, have been a smashing success for fishermen where they have been implemented.  Their real opposition comes from campaign donations from large corporate fishing (which tends to loose market control to individual fishers when catch shares are implemented) and to the fact that catch shares represent a market-based solution.

Take a look at Michael’s piece here, which I’ll excerpt below:   

On the campaign trail, former Obama administration official and now Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren followed in the footsteps of one of her closest advisors, retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), agreeing with Sen. Brown’s opposition to catch share management in New England fisheries on the basis that it has had negative effects on small businesses and unfairly favors larger operations. Under the catch share system, the total amount of fish that can be caught is divided up among fishermen who can then either opt to lease or catch their quota. If Sen.-elect Warren maintains this stance on catch shares when she arrives on Capitol Hill in January, it won’t endear her to the Obama administration’s ocean leadership, which has promoted catch shares as a key means of ending overfishing and rebuilding economically and environmentally sustainable fisheries.

Where Sen.-elect Warren will clearly differentiate herself from Sen. Brown and ally herself with the White House will be on the issue of climate change. While Sen. Brown believes humans “play a role” in the forces that are changing our climate, his victorious opponent finds the data supporting human activity as a root cause to be “overwhelming.” And while Sen. Brown opposed regulation of greenhouse gasses by the Environmental Protection Agency, Sen.-elect Warren would support such action. She is also a supporter of Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm which has received permits to begin construction on Nantucket Sound, a project Sen. Brown vocally opposed.

Then there’s the victory scored by Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) over Republican rival and Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock to replace Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was defeated in the Republican Senate primary contest. Lake Michigan clips the northwest corner of Indiana, making it a Great Lakes state, but the reason this office is included in this list has nothing to do with Asian carpzebra mussels, or the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Rather, it’s about one critical issue that extends far beyond the borders of the home state of Sen. Lugar and Sen.-elect Donnelly: the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty codifies customary international law and establishes rules and methodologies detailing the rights and responsibilities of nations when it comes to use and protection of the world’s oceans. One hundred and sixty-two other countries have ratified it, but the United States remains the only industrialized nation that has not signed the convention.

Sen. Lugar is the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in that capacity has been the leading Republican voice supporting Senate ratification of the treaty. In fact, he is the only Republican member of the Committee who is not one of 34 signatories to a letter pledging to vote against the treaty should it come up for a vote in the full Senate. Sen-elect Donnelly will likely support the treaty, but without Sen. Lugar’s leadership in the Foreign Relations Committee it will be virtually impossible for the Democrats to bring the treaty up for a vote before the full Senate. The loss of Sens. Snowe, Lugar, and Brown means the road to the 67 votes needed to ratify a treaty will get more difficult in 2013.

The House of Representatives:  Congress will be facing fisheries issues on a national scale in the years to come. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law regulating fishery management, will be up for reauthorization in 2013. Rep. Southerland fired off an early salvo in the looming war over the role of science and the law’s current requirement to end overfishing by holding a Natural Resources Committee field hearing in his Florida district back in August. He came out swinging against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s efforts to regulate fisheries, only to have the majority of his constituents in attendance loudly proclaim their support for the regulations. How this debate plays out in the years to come remains to be seen.

Conclusion: In 2008 President Obama rode the wave of “change” into the White House. On the surface, 2012 looks like the opposite. But as usual, reading beyond the headlines—Democrats retain White House and Senate, Republicans keep House of Representatives—can lead to different conclusions. Significant alterations could be afoot for our oceans as climate change starts to regain some of its footing in the national policy dialogue, the National Ocean Policy gets a new lease on life, and fishery management… well, time will tell on that score.

Leave a Reply