Obama to launch oceans initiative


WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday is set to create a national stewardship policy for America’s oceans and Great Lakes,
including a type of zoning that could dramatically rebalance the way
government regulates offshore drilling, fishing and other marine

The policy would not create new regulations or immediately alter drilling plans or fisheries management. But White House documents and senior administration officials suggest it would strengthen conservation and ecosystem protection.

The initiative culminates more than a year of work by a federal Ocean Policy Task Force,
which Obama established last year. After the task force releases its
final recommendations, the president is expected to sign an executive
order directing federal agencies to adopt and implement them.

Calling the BP oil spill ravaging the Gulf of Mexico a “stark reminder of how vulnerable our marine environments are,” the recommendations center on creating a National Ocean Council to coordinate regulation of oceans and the Great Lakes, and on a principle of “ecosystem-based management” for marine areas.

The council would include top federal scientists and
officials from a variety of agencies, including national security
experts, environmental regulators and managers of ocean commerce.

The recommendations embrace a controversial practice
called marine spatial planning, a zoning process of sorts that seeks to
manage waters in the way some cities manage factories and strip malls.
The process could result in confining activities such as drilling,
shipping and conservation to areas the planners deem best-suited to
each use.

Nine regional groups — consisting of state, federal
and tribal officials — would draft plans for conservation and use of
ocean resources that would have to be approved by the National Ocean Council. Federal agencies have agreed to abide by the plans.

If the Great Lakes regional body designated certain lake areas for offshore wind farms, for example, the Interior Department would agree to approve wind farms only within those areas.

The same would be true for any new offshore drilling
projects. Currently, Interior officials develop drilling plans under a
public-comment process within their department.

The recommendations do not specify their effect on
offshore drilling. Administration officials said the new policy would
not prejudge or conflict with future findings of the bipartisan
commission Obama had charged with investigating the oil gusher.

But the administration says coordinated,
stewardship-heavy ocean management is likely to “really change”
practices in nearly every marine activity, drilling included. The final
task force report predicts that the changes would help restore fish
populations, protect human health and “rationally allow” for ocean uses
such as energy production.

“This sets the nation on a path toward much more
comprehensive planning to both conservation and sustainable use of
(ocean) resources,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because the policy had not been officially

The first draft of the policy, released in
September, drew heavy criticism from some quarters, including industry
and recreational anglers concerned that sport fishing might be
restricted or banned.

After a deluge of criticism and meetings with
fishing and boating groups, the administration modified the
recommendations to emphasize the importance of fishing and ocean
recreation, calling them “critical to the economic, social, and
cultural fabric of our country.”

The recommendations do not include curbs on
recreational fishing. But the mere prospect of marine spatial planning
has drawn skepticism from ocean users.

Oil and gas officials are concerned too. They have
repeatedly urged the administration not to adopt any planning process
that could restrict offshore drilling.

Last fall, for example, a representative of the American Petroleum Institute testified at a task force field hearing, “The oil and natural gas industry’s presence in the Gulf (of Mexico)
has successfully coexisted with other ocean uses like tourism, fishing,
the U.S. military and shipping for many years, demonstrating that the
current system of governance works well.”

The new plan would emphasize nine areas under the
broad banner of marine stewardship and conservation, including improved
scientific research and mapping; helping coastal communities adapt to
climate change and ocean acidification, particularly in the Arctic; and enhancing water quality on land to boost ocean water quality.


(c) 2010, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.