This is a guest post by David Helvarg, an author and a coordinator of the upcoming Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C. His next book is Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes (May 2009).


America now has, among other historic precedents, its first bodysurfing president. Of course, protecting the ocean (71 percent of the planet’s surface and 97 percent of its livable habitat) is still not likely to be the top priority of Hawaii-raised Barack Obama. He’s got more than enough policy challenges for his first weeks in office, with the collapse of a world economy based on American consumers buying stuff, two ongoing and intractable wars, and the civilization-ending threat from fossil fuel-fired climate change.

Still, healthy oceans and coasts are essential to the nation’s economy, security, and stability. About half of America’s GDP is generated in its 600 coastal counties (which are home to $4 trillion of insured property). And to some degree, everyone is at risk from the cascading marine ecological disasters of overfishing (loss of food security), nutrient and plastic pollution (public health threats), coastal sprawl (increased risk of disaster), and climate change (big increased risk of disaster).

The first sign of hope is the new president’s insistence that change has to come from bottom-up engagement of our citizenry. On Martin Luther King’s birthday, the night before the inauguration, some 300 people participated in a seaweed shoreline restoration in my Bay Area neighborhood of Richmond, Calif., and about half of the participants had heard about it on an Obama-linked volunteer website.

Another positive sign was his nomination of Dr. Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead civilian agency for ocean policy, which is housed (some would say sunk) within the Department of Commerce. Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has long advocated an integrated ecosystem-based approach to the stewardship of our public seas, a kind of management blueprint for the protection and sustainable use of our blue frontier. She will have two good precedents from the Bush years to build on: the 2006 reform of the federal fisheries act, which mandated a rapid science-based approach to the rebuilding of depleted stocks of edible wild fish; and Bush’s establishment of the first large U.S. marine wilderness monuments in the Pacific — arguably the worst environmental president in history giving us our first true national parks of the sea.

One of Obama’s other appointments may turn out to be good for the country but a loss for the seas. Leon Panetta, former Clinton White House chief of staff and head of the Pew Ocean Commission, which set out much of the ocean-reform blueprint, has been tapped to head and reform the CIA. Originally Panetta had expressed interest in being secretary of commerce, before that nomination went to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (who then had to drop out due to a conflict-of-interest investigation). The head of Commerce will have a profound effect on the amount of influence Lubchenco and a reinvigorated NOAA will have on cabinet-level policy decisions on climate and other ocean issues. While Obama has gathered a strong green climate team with the likes of Carol Browner and the new heads of the Energy Department, EPA, and CEQ, none of them come with strong blue credentials.

The hope among marine conservationists is that the administration will nonetheless adopt a White House plan for healthy, sustainable seas. This would include protection of our emerging fifth coast in Arctic Alaska; increased support for regional, state, and local initiatives (led by California and Rhode Island, among others); and a rapid transition from offshore oil and gas to sustainable ocean energy production as part of a well-conceived plan for marine zoning. This zoning or “marine spatial management” would incorporate a system of improved watersheds and estuaries, offshore shipping lanes and greener ports, wildlife migration corridors, clean energy, national defense and fishing areas, recreational and marine wilderness parks, and so forth. Also called for is congressional passage of an American Ocean Act at the level of the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, in order to ensure that this kind of tidal change is enshrined as the law of the land.

But first there’s the Law of the Sea Convention for the U.S. to join. One near political certainty is that, after 30 years of delay, the Senate will finally ratify the Law of the Seas Treaty this year and reengage with the rest of the world in setting the basic rules for navigation, exploration, and conservation on the world ocean. The Law of the Seas Treaty, endorsed by the full range of ocean interests from Exxon to Greenpeace, isn’t even low-lying fruit; it’s on the ground rotting, waiting to get picked up. A more daunting political challenge for the administration and Congress is comprehensive management of the 3.4 million square nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone that stretches 200 miles out from U.S. shores.

Signs for action in Congress are mixed. Representative Sam Farr (D-Calif.), a leader of the small “House Ocean Caucus,” reintroduced his HR-21 bill that would set standards for this, but it has seen little progress to date. It has, however, attracted vociferous opposition from the oil industry, ultra-conservative Farm Bureau (because of synthetic fertilizer runoff into the ocean), and the National Association of Home Builders. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a National Ocean Protection Act, similar to HR-21, in the Senate.

The Senate, however, has seen few true ocean champions to promote this kind of legislation since Sens. Magnuson, Humphrey, and Pell in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and Sen. Hollings in the ’80s and ’90s. Now Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of the “Ocean State” of Rhode Island, who is married to a marine biologist, is looking to take on that mantle during the Obama years.

Moving ocean legislation on Capitol Hill and finding funding for it during a recession will be a hugely challenging task. As a result of budget shortfalls, additional advanced state initiatives, such as those being overseen by the California Ocean Protection Council, are now being delayed and critical public meetings canceled.

Still, marine conservationists remain hopeful that comprehensive new approaches such as a federal Ocean Act or White House ocean initiative, driven by a bottom-up seaweed constituency, might yet inspire broad public support to help restore our public waters and shores from sea to shining sea.