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Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2015 Highlights

Capitol Hill Ocean Week is an annual event in Washington, D.C., held by the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation that brings together a wide range of leaders, from state and local government, academia, and the private sector. This year, CHOW was held from June 9-11 at the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center. Over the course of three days, there were 13 sessions including many panel discussions covering a diverse range of relevant marine-related topics.  Below, are four panels distilled into a few paragraphs—a small selection. However, all the sessions are archived online, so I highly encourage you to check them out!

Chairing the Arctic Council

arctic councilThe United States is currently chairing the Arctic Council, a multi-national governance system that rotates responsibility among the rest of the Arctic nations (Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland). Loss of sea ice, changing ocean chemistry and melting permafrost threatens cultural survival and many resident communities are already struggling to adapt. The Arctic is increasingly becoming ice-free, opening it up to economic development in the form of shipping, fishing, oil and gas, tourism, etc. Potential development will be a great management and political challenge and raises the question: is the U.S. is prepared for operations such search and rescue or oil spill response? Critical to operations in the Arctic are icebreakers—ships that are designed to navigate icy waters and provide safe routes for other vessels. The U.S. will be retiring one of its two icebreakers in the near future, so more are urgently needed. Despite these intimidating challenges, the panel sees the opening of the Arctic as an opportunity to get integrated management right the first time. The panel also expressed hope that by being chair of the Arctic Council, the American public will start to think of itself as an Arctic nation—a sentiment that is not widely appreciated at the moment.


Ensuring a Sustainable Seafood Supply

Salmon on ice.  (Image credit: annon, flickr Creative Commons)

Salmon on ice. (Image credit: annon, flickr Creative Commons)

While it’s hard to assess the current state of wild-caught fisheries in the U.S. due to the incredibly diverse range of species harvested, gear used and management, it is generally “pretty good and improving”. That being said, domestic catch of wild stocks is flat, making way for a huge opportunity for increasing domestic offshore aquaculture (fish farm) production.

Maine hosts the largest aquaculture production effort in the U.S. with 180 farms, and employment of 600 people. While this industry is small, on a social level, this gives the younger generation a way to continue their family traditions on the water, given that joining fisheries of fully exploited wild stocks is not an option. However, due to consumer confusion and distrust, as well as low investor confidence, the U.S. aquaculture industry is not as large as it could be.  (Side note: this was in the paper today, so investment might be on its way!)

All of this is almost a moot point when we look at the reality of seafood supply in the U.S., and that is, the majority (over 90%!) is imported. We have chosen to buy our seafood from other countries, and are responsible for any resulting environmental impacts and unethical labour concerns. So how do we as consumers know which businesses to support? We don’t. Unfortunately, consumers are confused, and consumers do not buy what they do not understand. Given that U.S. fisheries management (via the Magnuson-Stevens Act) is in good shape, promoting domestic seafood is one such way to provide assurance. In the end however, we cannot solely rely on educated consumers, but there needs to be a unified message from the supplier side, as well as sound legislation (see proposed TPP treaty), enforcement and transparency so markets can reward producers that are doing the right thing.


Fuelling American Business: Ocean Technology and Research & Leadership Roundtable

Getting kids out to ocean and coastal parks builds a natural constituency. (Image credit: Denali National Park and Preserve)

Getting kids out to ocean and coastal parks builds a natural constituency. (Image credit: Denali National Park and Preserve)

A reoccurring concern voiced during these two panels, was the unanimous agreement that ocean research is severely underfunded. Some suggestions to increase funding are:

(1) Increase Efforts in Education & Outreach to Generate Public Interest

References to NASA were repeated a few times throughout CHOW. The gist is that NASA made it a point to invest heavily in education and outreach. At the time, they were criticized because funds were diverted to activities that were not core to science. Years later, it is clear that the strategy paid off. When Congress decided not to fix the Hubble telescope, the public lobbied, including kids that sent in their pennies and Congress ultimately changed its mind. More ocean science needs to be communicated in an exciting and digestible way so the public is inspired to care and support ocean science. Maybe then, kids will demand to go to sea camp just as they demand to go to space camp now. We also need to get youth into ocean and coastal parks, as well as engage them in ocean science as it activates stewardship and builds a natural constituency.

(2) Private Sponsors of Competitions

The idea behind XPRIZE is to incentivize competition by offering a monetary prize or ‘purse’ to solve an identified challenge (i.e. developing oil spill or marine debris cleanup technology). Cumulative investment by participant entries for the purse is often 10 times what the purse is worth!

(3) Appeal to the crowd

While not disscused on either panel, crowdfunding is an increasingly popular option for scientists looking to fund their research.  On the ocean tech side, engineering companies can opt to put forth a design challenge (i.e. for a particular part of a submersible), then agree to buy or implement a certain quantity as long as all required parameters such as weight, cost, size, and efficiency are met.

One other fantastic point worth mentioning is the importance of continuing to collect basic data. Dollar for dollar, investing in basic scientific research provides very high return on investment. One panelist claimed economic return was fifty fold!



As I reflect on all I learned at CHOW and try to prevent the wealth of ideas, statistics, policies, initiatives, partnerships and acronyms from escaping my brain, I came up with two takeaways.

Seagrass (Image credit: Ria Tan)

Seagrass (Image credit: Ria Tan)

  1. It’s all about the money.

In order to make good decisions, we need good science; ergo, we need to secure sustainable funding. As well, economics needs to be integrated into the environment so it can compete on the same playing field as other industries. For example, healthy ecosystems and marine life from an ecotourism and resilience perspective, as well as considering the value of ecosystem services and the social cost of carbon should influence decision making to support a healthier ocean and sustainable way of life.


  1. It’s all about people.

We need to elect political leaders or ocean champions, and that responsibility falls on our shoulders as citizens. We need to demand change from the seagrass rhizomes (that’s grassroots to land lovers) up.

And that’s a whirlwind wrap on Capitol Hill Ocean Week! If you missed it this year, you can check out the archives or catch it next year. It will be accessible to all in D.C. and worldwide online, live.

To end, here is a quote by host Chris Palmer from the opening address that kicked off CHOW: “We know that everyday is oceans day, Earth day should be Ocean day, and planet Earth should be planet Ocean”. Now go forth, and do good things.

Let us know: What kind of basic ocean research do you think is a priority?  Or what development in ocean science, technology, management or policy are you most excited about? Let us know in the comments below!


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