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Ocean Acidification: A Chance for Bipartisan Cooperation in Congress?

Sarah Cooley, a marine scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, explains the environmental group’s strategy for reaching out to both sides of the aisle on legislation to address ocean challenges in a divisive political environment.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Ocean acidification is affecting coastal economies in red and blue states.Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The United States Congress can seem hopelessly divided along partisan lines, especially when it comes to climate change and environmental protection.

That’s why the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., thinks about both the big and small pictures. Finding bipartisan support for proactive policies can seem like a long shot, but it doesn’t always have to be, according to Sarah Cooley, director of the group’s ocean acidification program.

Cooley, a marine scientist by training, has pushed for bills recently introduced in the House and Senate that direct the secretary of commerce to assess the impact of ocean acidification on coastal communities. For example, said Cooley, the secretary could look at the economic impact on local shellfish fisheries and aquaculture. The House bill, introduced last May, currently has 18 Democrats and five Republicans as cosponsors and a Senate bill introduced in December is being sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans. The bills only call for reports, so they take small steps, but they also help engage lawmakers on the issue, according to Cooley.

Oceans Deeply talked with Cooley about how the Ocean Conservancy rallies support for ocean acidification policies and if such efforts can be applied to ocean policies more broadly.

Oceans Deeply: What is your strategy for communicating ocean acidification to members of Congress and to the general public?

Sarah Cooley: In the early to mid-2000s, there was a real problem noticed, particularly in the Pacific Northwest hatcheries, showing that whenever there was an intensified upwelling situation ocean acidification really intensified. That was fatal to a large proportion of the shellfish larva that these hatcheries were nurturing to sell. This is a real problem in the Pacific Northwest, because the shellfish hatcheries are few and far between, but they’re really a bottleneck in the production cycle for aquaculture shellfish on the West Coast.

We have been working with Congress for probably the past five or six fiscal years now. We have these ocean experts and local folks who are expecting to either deal with acidification in their own business or are researching it – those folks are experts and we put them in touch with the members of Congress who represent them.

The other thing that we have members of Congress do is we have them organize and cosponsor what we call message bills or small acts of legislation. Those message bills really focus on an aspect of acidification that is important to them and their community. The Republican congresswoman from the Miami area, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has [previously] put forward legislation that considers ocean acidification, as well as starting what we need to be doing to safeguard the corals that are so important to her area’s ocean economy.

We also work to help connect and export some of the good work that is going on in states. What we see is that states like Washington and California are really test beds for local action and coordination. We are helping export those successes, and saying, “Hey Maryland, you’re interested in taking action on acidification, here is what Washington and California have pledged to do. Let’s think similarly about your economy. What matters to you, what do you already have going on, and how might you emphasize those activities and still take action on acidification?”

Oceans Deeply: The recent Senate bill does have bipartisan support, but the two Republican senators who are cosponsoring the bill do not necessarily represent the rest of their party on some issues. So does this bill actually have broad bipartisan support?

Cooley: I think one of the reasons that we see senators Murkowski and Collins jumping in on this issue has less to do with their centrist positions on many other issues and has more to do with the critical importance of healthy fisheries and healthy coastal communities for their states.

In Alaska, the fishery industry is a critical source of income for that state. Subsistence fishing is actually a really important source of nutrition for many Alaskan communities. I think that what we’re really excited about is that Senator Murkowski understands the holistic importance of healthy fisheries, especially shellfish – both crustaceans and bivalves – to her communities. We’re seeing the same thing with Senator Collins [in Maine.]

Oceans Deeply: Would you describe the bill as having broad support right now?

Cooley: Yes, certainly that House version is what I can speak to more because that has been out and introduced for quite some time. We are seeing very strong bipartisan support for the bill, particularly in Florida. Florida lawmakers on both sides of the aisle really understand that one of the things that Florida’s economy really depends on is the coral reefs. The coral reefs need to be healthy and acidification is one of the things that jeopardizes that.

We are also talking with Virginia members. We are making connections with members along the Gulf Coast, as well, to open this conversation with them and educate them about this issue. So I think that this is something that we are going to see increasing bipartisan support for.

Oceans Deeply: Are there lessons that we can draw on other ocean issues that are even more divisive?

Cooley: It is human nature to communicate better when we have shared interests and we can identify shared values, so I think that as we think about ocean acidification and communicate with each other about acidification, we are always thinking about what unites us. So often you can go to somebody and say, “Hey, you love the ocean, I love the ocean, let’s talk about what we can do better for the ocean. Here’s something that is a more detailed view.”

I think that [people can] start from a place of agreement on a shared feeling of interest of sustaining businesses or a shared interest for the wonder of the place.

Oceans Deeply: Not every issue will be win-win for both sides, at least not equally. How do you talk to members of Congress of both parties when it is not win-win?

Cooley: We will work in small steps – taking very small steps to engage with a member. For example, we began in small steps working with a particular Republican member of Congress to educate this member and really show how this issue was relevant and potentially impactful. The next Congressional session, this member asked us for input on a particular piece of legislation that we hadn’t particularly cared for the prior session. By working in this very long-game perspective, where we are looking for growing that relationship over time, [this] has given us an opportunity to weigh in and start influencing things that maybe we don’t like so much.

This really is a long-term system of relationship building that we have to commit to, and we do. I think that has been a real lesson to me, as a scientist working in policy. Previously I really didn’t recognize the value of those long-term information-sharing types of relationships.

Oceans Deeply: Thank you for speaking with us. Is there anything more that you would like to say?

Cooley: Just sharing the fact that acidification is a really unique opportunity for us to think through things that matter to representatives of any political bent.

I think that’s been a really interesting environmental case study. We are learning a lot from doing that and I am looking forward to applying it in the future to thinking about how other aspects of ocean change may affect coastal zones. We’re hearing more about oxygen loss, and we’re hearing more about changes in the nitrogen cycle and I am really eager to look ahead to how we can apply these sorts of lessons learned to things that are even more hard to wrap your arms around. I like a challenge.

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