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Congress Is Relying on Sleight of Hand to Attack Ocean Conservation

Oceana chief executive Andrew Sharpless says advocates need to pay close attention because lawmakers are quietly attempting to gut protections for marine ecosystems.

Written by Andrew Sharpless Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.Saul Loeb/AFP

As summer begins around the United States, Americans are flocking to the coasts. Tourists and locals alike stroll up and down the beachfronts and boardwalks, enjoying the warmer weather, the produce from food trucks and perhaps some entertainment from crooked street magicians.

But while card tricks and Three-Card Monte may cost Americans nothing more than some small change, a far more nefarious sleight-of-hand trick is taking place in our nation’s capital – one that will have far more dire consequences for the oceans that define so many of our summer vacations. While attention is focused on the headlines swirling around Donald Trump, representatives in Congress are quietly and aggressively seeking radical changes to United States oceans policy.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, an adviser to President Trump, spelled out the strategy succinctly: “Trump and the Republicans are doing so many different things on parallel tracks, the news media and activists can’t follow it all,” he told the Washington Post recently. “This is by design.”

Senate Republicans, following this playbook, wrote their healthcare bill in secret. A bill that would repeal many of the banking reforms instituted after the financial crisis sailed through the House of Representatives the same day that fired FBI director James Comey’s testimony drew ratings on a par with the NBA Finals.

But these maneuvers have received at least some attention and media coverage. In contrast, little of either has yet been afforded to the ongoing, sub rosa Congressional effort to undermine a decades-old consensus on policies designed to protect our environment and our oceans. These policies are popular across the political spectrum but are now in serious danger. It’s time for the media and activists to sound the alarm.

Marine national monuments have a proud bipartisan history. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii was created by President George W. Bush and expanded by President Barack Obama. Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Papahānaumokuākea is the second-largest protected area in the world and is home to 7,000 different species, including threatened or endangered animals such as hawksbill and green sea turtles and the Hawaiian monk seal.

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles (210km) off Cape Cod, was created last year after significant input from local communities. It is home to deep-sea corals and will protect endangered whales and sea turtles. And yet national monuments like these – and the ability to create new ones – are quietly under attack.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is in the midst of a “review” of these national monuments. In Congress, bills including H.R. 2284, H.R. 1489, S. 132 and S. 33 would limit the president’s ability to designate future national monuments.

Responsible fisheries management is a bipartisan and successful policy that has come under siege. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs U.S. fisheries, was named for former Democratic senator Warren Magnuson and former Republican senator Ted Stevens. Under the act, U.S. fisheries management has been a model for the rest of the world. Back in 2000, nearly 40 percent of U.S. fish stocks were over-fished. Today, we’ve rebuilt 41 fish stocks and brought the percentage of stocks over-fished down to 9 percent.

Despite this success story, legislators are promoting a bill that would undermine the effectiveness of this very successful law by “increasing flexibility in fisheries management.” The law is already as flexible as it needs to be, allowing managers to craft regional approaches to management that achieve their goals while respecting the biology of the fish. Additional flexibility will jeopardize the success that U.S. fisheries have achieved under Magnuson-Stevens.

And Congress is moving to eliminate the institutions and rules that we rely on to protect our oceans and the environment. One bill seeks to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency entirely. Another bill (H.R. 5) that you probably haven’t heard much about – and which has already passed the House – would cripple the broader rulemaking process by burying it under pro-industry obligations. H.R. 481 would end the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) as we know it.

The NEPA process protects the public by requiring the government to be open and transparent about the environmental impacts of its decisions. This bill would allow the federal government to abdicate responsibility for studying the environmental impacts of federal actions by transferring this responsibility to the states, most of which are ill-equipped for the task. Elsewhere in Congress, proposed draconian budget cuts also threaten funding for the agencies that manage and protect our natural wonders.

As Gingrich points out, this onslaught is by design. Now is a time for those of us who value ocean conservation to focus: don’t let the other stories dominating our political conservation distract us from the real threats in Congress.

None of this is to suggest that it is wrong to follow breaking news. Indeed, like many others in the Trump era, I am frequently glued to my Twitter feed. But those who care about our oceans should not fall for the sleight-of-hand trick – keep your eyes on Congress. Make sure your representatives know we are paying attention and that we will fight for our oceans. Whatever shocking revelation comes next, ocean advocates need to remember to keep the focus on Congress where laws are made … and unmade.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Oceans Deeply.

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