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50 Years of Seeking Ocean Protection

Friday, December 13, 2019

If you were around in 1969, you remember it as a turbulent and chaotic time. The first astronauts landed on the moon; the Vietnam War continued, with massive protests; Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi coast, killing 248 people; along came Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and the Manson murders. So, you might be excused for thinking that protecting the marine environment garnered little attention that year, or that the major ocean story was a British adventurer who became the first person to row solo across the Atlantic.

But that would be wrong, since it was the year of the Santa Barbara oil spill, at the time the largest in U.S. history, and still the third largest after Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez. The pictures of oil-soaked birds and dying seals outraged the public and focused attention on the threats to wildlife and the environment from drilling activities. That disaster, along with the Cuyahoga River fire a few months later, signaled the need for action on the environment, and Congress and the Administration took note. Richard Nixon had been inaugurated in January, shortly after astronaut Bill Anders had taken the famous “Earthrise” photo that became a touchstone for the growing environmental movement, and a bipartisan spirit prevailed. The National Environmental Policy Act was passed, the Council on Environmental Quality created, and EPA established.

Although significant public and governmental attention was focused on space, the application of new technologies and science to the ocean raised interest, especially on the part of the oceanographic community. At the international level, the Law of the Sea conferences raised the profile of ocean resources and the mechanisms to both exploit and protect them.

In 1966, Congress had enacted the Marine Resources and Engineering Development Act, Pub. L. No. 89-454, out of concern for the nation’s coasts and ocean. One product of the Act was the establishment of the Commission on Marine Science, Engineering, and Resources, usually referred to as the Stratton Commission after its chairman Julius A. Stratton, an eminent physicist. Its broad-ranging report, issued in January 1969, led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and influenced national marine policies and programs for decades.

The 1970s saw the modern environmental legal infrastructure that we know take shape. From a marine perspective, critical legislation included the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Coastal Zone Management Act (1972), the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972), and the Magnuson Fishery and Conservation Act (1976). The National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973) were, of course, also key to protecting ocean resources. On the world stage, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tasked parties with a duty to protect and preserve the marine environment.

Although legislation to create an ocean council was introduced on a number of occasions over the years, it was not until 2000 that Congress enacted the Oceans Act of 2000 (Pub. L. No. 106-256), establishing a U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. The report of that Commission, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century, was issued in 2004, shortly after a report by an independent commission of the Pew Charitable Trust in 2003, America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. Both reports underscored the need for policies and mechanisms to manage ocean resources, as well as the funding to support those efforts. Both also stressed the importance of increased scientific research. As required by the Oceans Act, President George W. Bush submitted to Congress a response to the findings of the Commission, the U.S. Ocean Action Plan. By Executive Order, he also established a Committee on Ocean Policy as part of the Council on Environmental Quality. There followed other efforts to improve both policy and management, including joint work by the Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Commission to assess and report on the status of ocean policy and programs. Especially important to these efforts were advances in marine science and technology.

A second Executive Order was issued in 2010, by President Barack Obama, creating the United State’s first National Ocean Policy. It set out priorities, including protecting marine ecosystems using the best available science, and established a National Ocean Council to implement the policies. The Council released the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan in 2013, and in 2016 it approved regional ocean management plans for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

All of these reports, plans, and actions increased protection of the ocean and coasts, and gave hope that deterioration of the resources could be stemmed, if not reversed, an imperative considering the critical state we currently find them in. Populations of marine species have halved in size since 1970, and even at that time many fisheries were already stressed or in collapse. Industrial fishing has damaged even further various fish stocks, along with illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities. When climate-induced changes are factored in, with increased warming and acidification of the ocean, we face a truly “perfect storm” of threats.

Sadly, hope for continuing U.S. momentum on ocean protection was dealt a blow when the current Administration revoked the Obama order, and issued its own “Ocean Policy to Advance the Economic, Security, and Environmental Interests of the United States.” As the title indicates, the order shifts federal ocean policy from preserving the ecological health of the ocean to protecting economic growth and national security. The order also restructured or eliminated various management and policy frameworks, to the detriment of ocean protection. All this comes at a time when the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a bleak picture of continued ocean warming and acidification, with severe impacts for man and nature.

Today, there appears to be a deeper public interest in the health of our oceans than 50 years ago, perhaps because of exposure though television and other media, or increased coastal tourism. There is a growing recognition not only of climate and pollution impacts, but also of the crucial role that the ocean plays in absorbing carbon dioxide and regulating the climate. All of this is fostering increased support for protection of the ocean and ocean resources. Also positive are the many initiatives at all levels, local to international, to address the looming threats. Especially encouraging are efforts to implement the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal on oceans, and to forge an agreement under UNCLOS to protect areas beyond national jurisdiction. So, there remains hope that the momentum for protecting our ocean and coasts will not be stopped, regardless of the roadblocks we face.

It was over 50 years ago that the young activists of the Students for a Democratic Society issued their manifesto, aimed at creating a better society, the concluding words of which might well be adopted by today’s young climate activists:

"If we appear to seek the unattainable, . . . then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable."


All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.