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Deeply Talks: U.S. Ocean Politics – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Following Capitol Hill Ocean Week, Oceans Deeply’s Jessica Leber and Kristen Sarri of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation discuss the ocean and coastal priorities of the Trump administration and Congress.

Written by Jessica Leber Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
What’s on Washington’s ocean agenda?Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images

In this episode of Deeply Talks, Jessica Leber, Oceans Deeply’s deputy managing editor, talks with Kristen Sarri, president and chief executive of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, about ocean politics and policy in the United States. The jumping-off point for their discussion was Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW), an annual conference in Washington, D.C., that’s organized by Sarri’s group and was held on June 5–7 this year.

Economic development – whether that means offshore oil and gas drilling, increasing seafood production, exploring the seabed or boosting coastal tourism and recreation – is the theme of President Donald Trump’s ocean and coastal goals. That was clear on Tuesday, when the White House issued an executive order revoking the 2010 National Ocean Policy, a political flashpoint for the last administration. The Obama administration’s goal was to guide a more coordinated, sustainable management of the oceans and coasts in collaboration with states and tribes, though Republican opponents called it more bureaucracy. On Tuesday, conservation groups panned Trump’s action, which, among other things, ensures “federal regulations and management decisions do not prevent productive and sustainable use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters,” according to the executive order.

In our latest Deeply Talks, recorded last week prior to the Trump administration’s executive order, we discussed the administration’s ocean priorities, as outlined in a speech at CHOW by Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Sarri pointed out that the administration’s economic lens isn’t necessarily at odds with conservation progress. For example, her organization is working closely with NOAA to expand and create new marine sanctuaries, while it also opposes President Trump’s 2017 executive order that put the future of several existing national marine monuments in question. “We should keep talking to the administration both about our concerns around the executive order, but also the opportunities that exist,” she said. (Oceans Deeply half-jokingly suggested Trump might actually enjoy putting his name on some sprawling ocean real estate by creating a new marine monument.)

The Trump administration’s disregard for science has been a concern for many. But Sarri praised Gallaudet as a leader who will support NOAA’s scientific mission. “Under his leadership, I feel very strongly that he is going to be protective of the science,” she said.

At CHOW, three members of Congress – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Representative Francis Rooney (R-Florida) and Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) – participated in a Congressional Leadership Roundtable moderated by Oceans Deeply (watch the panel), where the focus was bipartisan opportunities for oceans and coasts. Sarri noted that marine conservation is still a bipartisan issue, even though the nation’s changing demographics have made the topic more politically divided than in the past. “Coastal areas are becoming more Democratic – you can see more polarization,” she said. That’s one reason, she said, why inland residents need to be more strongly engaged on ocean and coastal issues.

For the rest of this Congressional term, the 2019 budget, offshore drilling and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act will be important debates to watch.

But an under-the-radar piece of legislation is also under discussion: the Save Our Seas Act, a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate unanimously in 2017 and awaits action in the House of Representatives. The bill addresses the growing problem of marine plastic pollution “on both sides of the equation,” as Sarri put it – with the U.S. as a consumer of plastic as well as a nation greatly affected by marine debris. “There’s a concerted effort in the House to really try to pass this legislation before the end of the session,” she said.

To hear the full discussion, listen to the Deeply Talks episode. For advance notice of upcoming Deeply Talks and updates about our regular coverage, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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