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Trump Takes U.S. Ocean Policy in the Wrong Direction

We must reorient our ocean management to adapt to new climate realities, say Whitley Saumweber, former ocean and coastal adviser to President Obama, and Roberta Elias of the World Wildlife Fund.

Written by Whitley Saumweber, Roberta Elias Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Fish are unloaded from the Destiny fishing boat at the Whaling City Seafood Display Auction on April 28, 2013, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Trump rescinded President Obama’s National Ocean Policy executive order. He replaced that executive order with a new one – one that emphasizes ocean use over conservation, fails to reference key concepts like ecosystem health, resilience, biodiversity or climate change, and makes federal participation in ongoing regional planning efforts voluntary.

This approach to ocean resource management should have no place in a world where change is the new normal. Unless the community of nations makes rapid progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean of tomorrow will be a depleted place. Even if we meet the targets contained in the Paris climate accord, it is likely that marine ecosystems, and the communities that rely on them, will still face dramatic change. If we don’t change the path we are on, we can expect major poleward shifts in fish stocks and severe loss of global marine habitat from a combination of warming seas, depleted oxygen levels and increased acidity.

We must reorient our management approaches and institutions to account for this new reality. To meet this challenge, management goals need to consider not just how we maximize use, or even just what may be sustainable today, but rather what will be sustainable tomorrow.

Technology and new approaches, such as dynamic ocean management, will help. But we must also embrace strategies that successfully integrate use of dynamic information in federal decisions and, perhaps more importantly, policies that can provide a foundation for thinking about conservation and use simultaneously. Just as science warns us of the dire consequences of inaction, it also tells us that careful inclusion of conservation and marine protected areas in resource management decisions is one of the best ways to promote resilient marine ecosystems.

Less than a month ago, President Trump proclaimed June as “National Ocean Month.” In that proclamation, he recognized that “the United States is a nation whose identity, wealth and security are inextricably linked with the ocean and coastal waters.” The best way to keep that linkage positive, including in a world where change is the new normal, is to ensure that the federal government is deliberate in making decisions that may impact ocean productivity and options for development and conservation going forward.

So how do we do this? How can we begin to bring together seemingly conflicting goals into a coherent strategy?

Fish in the Pacific Ocean’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, established by President George W. Bush in 2006. (Claire Fackler, CINMSNOAA)

The first thing to realize is that the need for some sort of governing principle – a substantive standard to ensure that our oceans remain capable of providing the full suite of values and services that we expect – has been at the heart of the evolving ocean policy conversation for many decades. This reality is reflected in the early 20th century activity of the conservation movement, through the Stratton Commission of the 1960s, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative of the 2000s and up to President Obama’s National Ocean Policy of 2010. President Trump’s executive order represents a significant departure from the past.Fortunately, the universe of policy tools spurred by these earlier actions provides a pathway, explicitly or through precedent, to pursue larger objectives, such as national resilience goals, in complementary ways.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) and the Antiquities Act, two of our most venerable environmental policy tools, provide an excellent example of the potential for complementary action in service of resilience. To achieve more resilient communities and ecosystems, each act has a critical role to play. Each must be employed for its intended purpose and in ways that are synergistic rather than antagonistic.

The MSA, particularly as amended in 1996 and again in 2006, has proven itself as a best-in-class tool to maintain commercial and recreational fish stocks and the economies that depend on them. But it is fundamentally incapable of serving as an ocean ecosystem conservation tool or of providing a rubric for balancing uses and values. The MSA does not have strong mandates to protect either habitats or ecosystems. While the act does require the regional fishery management councils to protect certain habitats from fishing, this requirement is only to be implemented to “the extent practicable.” Additionally, the habitat required to be protected is limited to managed commercial and recreational fish species rather than the full suite of flora and fauna that make up an ecosystem. Other broader MSA directives either lack teeth or are discretionary.

Conversely, the Antiquities Act was passed by Congress for the express purpose of conserving objects of historic and scientific value as national monuments. Our modern understanding of the act, and bipartisan precedent dating to President Kennedy, makes it clear that its authorities apply in our exclusive economic zone and to both the seabed and the water column above. Further, it is well understood that the act grants the president authority to regulate activities with the potential to impact the protected resource (see some examples here, here and here). In the case of marine national monuments, this means that a designation can, and should, include regulatory prohibitions on all commercial activity including fishing, mineral extraction, energy development and other related fields.

President Donald Trump visits coastal Virginia in 2017. More recently, he declared June “National Ocean Month.” (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Each of these statutes serves a clear and distinct set of purposes. Magnuson is a tool designed to maintain maximum sustainable yield of commercial and recreational fish stocks. That’s a tough job, but the MSA now has a strong track record of filling it. It is not, however, capable of supporting conservation in the manner that science tells us is required to foster resilience in the face of climate change and other anthropogenic impacts. This is where the Antiquities Act and its distinct set of authorities and purposes is crucial.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama each oversaw major advances in fishery management and, as a result, significant recovery in our nation’s fisheries. But they also recognized other values related to marine conservation. In establishing the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006, President Bush called out our “solemn responsibility to be good stewards of the oceans.” Similarly, President Obama explicitly recognized the threat of climate change as a reason for conservation in the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

By recognizing the distinct strengths of these statutes and their ability to be used in complementary ways, the U.S. government can best promote value, resilience, and sustainability. President Trump’s executive order represents a step in the wrong direction. As Congress works on MSA reauthorization and the administration considers potential changes to existing marine monuments and how to achieve concepts in the new Executive Order, they must remember that we are in fact “inextricably linked” with our oceans and coasts.

Let’s make the right decisions as we act, not just for the world of today, but also for the changed world of tomorrow.

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

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