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Oceans
Sea Feud
The first national ocean policy will balance industry needs and marine health.

Two years ago right whale carcasses were washing up on the beaches of Cape Ann in Massachusetts. Bloody gashes revealed their cause of death: collisions with massive tankers delivering natural gas to terminals in Boston. In 2008, in an effort to save other members of the federally protected species from that fate, Cornell University researchers deployed acoustic buoys that pick up whale songs, and began relaying information about the whales’ whereabouts to the Coast Guard. Today, when the giants swim close, the Guard temporarily reroutes the tankers—an example of a regional effort that could be applied on a federal level.

Such cooperation among competing interests is rare. While numerous agencies supervise coastal activities ranging from fishing to tourism to energy development, there’s never been an overarching policy dictating how groups should work together to protect the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. Now, for the first time, the federal government is developing an integrated management policy for these waterways. “We have a lot of different varieties of statutes and authorizations and mandates, but not one unifying piece of legislation,” says Jennifer Lukens of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We’re doing something about that.” 

Since President Obama created the Ocean Policy Task Force last June, its members, from 24 federal agencies, have been crafting a national policy to conserve oceans by balancing seemingly conflicting interests, like military training and marine mammal safety. In September the group recommended forming a National Ocean Council to implement and oversee the policy, and an executive order creating the council is expected this spring.

The timing is fortunate, says task force member and Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen. “We’re seeing more conflicts over the open ocean,” while ocean acidification and sea level are increasing, among other stressors to sea life.

The Ocean Council is focusing on an ecosystem-based approach that will allow agencies to evaluate how cumulative actions affect marine habitats. So decisions about installing a wind farm or a natural gas operation in federal waters would partly rest on the activity’s impact on life nearby.

Yet with so many interested parties at work in federal waters, which extend 200 nautical miles offshore, some conservationists temper their optimism. “I think the opportunities are there, but I don’t expect major fixes on a lot of things,” says Carl Safina, president of the nonprofit Blue Ocean Institute. “We could potentially have agencies working better, have some more streamlined approaches to management.” For instance, NOAA manages turtles and marine mammals at sea, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of them on land—an arrangement that can be problematic, Safina says. “I think it’s a process of groping toward improvement and improving faster than things deteriorate.”

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