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National Ocean Policy: a look inside Congress

Dr. Jerry Miller (far right) with (R to L) Ms. Shere Abbott, and Dr. John Holdren of OSTP, President Barack Obama, Ms. Nancy Sutley, Mr. Michael Boots, and Mr. Michael Weiss of CEQ as President Obama signs Executive Order 13547 establishing the National Ocean Policy. Credit: Science for Decisions.

Dr. Jerry Miller (far right) with (R to L) Ms. Shere Abbott, and Dr. John Holdren of OSTP, President Barack Obama, Ms. Nancy Sutley, Mr. Michael Boots, and Mr. Michael Weiss of CEQ as President Obama signs Executive Order 13547 establishing the National Ocean Policy. Credit: Science for Decisions.

During my three months so far working as a marine policy fellow in Congress, one issue has repeatedly dogged my inbox: National Ocean Policy. The NOP was established by executive order by President Obama in 2010. It was a historical move to create the first comprehensive ocean policy for the United States, and reaffirmed our commitment to protecting our oceans and coasts.

For a long time, protection and regulation of the ocean was viewed in a very fragmented, isolated manner, wherein fishery operations could potentially interfere with naval operations, or hydrocarbon exploration, and so forth. NOP was designed as a strategy that aims to coordinate the work of more than two dozen agencies and reconcile competing interests including fishing, offshore energy exploration and recreational activities. Yet, six years later, the NOP continually faces staunch partisan opposition. Why?

First, let’s examine what the NOP actually is. In simplest terms, the NOP provides top-down guidance to federal agencies to prioritize protection of the ecosystem, and provides improved framework for ocean planning and decision-making. John P. Holdren, who directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the plan “will help advance relevant science and its application to decision-making” regarding the ocean. Those measures include sharing data on severe storms and sea level rise, as well as melting ice in the Arctic.

In 2012, the White House issued an implementation plan for the NOP through their newly-created National Ocean Council (NOC). The NOP planned for 9 separate regional planning areas of the US: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Great Lakes, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, West Coast, Pacific Islands, and Alaska/Arctic regions. There are also 9 overarching objectives:

  • Ecosystem-Based Management: Adopt ecosystem-based management as a foundational principle for the comprehensive management of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. (In other words: place more value on protecting the ecosystem, when it comes to decision making.)
  • Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning: Implement comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management in the United States.
  • Inform Decisions and Improve Understanding: Increase knowledge to continually inform and improve management and policy decisions and the capacity to respond to change and challenges. Better educate the public through formal and informal programs about the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.
  • Coordinate and Support: Better coordinate and support Federal, State, tribal, local, and regional management of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. Improve coordination and integration across the Federal Government and, as appropriate, engage with the international community.
  • Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification: Strengthen resiliency of coastal communities and marine and Great Lakes environments and their abilities to adapt to climate change impacts and ocean acidification.
  • Regional Ecosystem Protection and Restoration: Establish and implement an integrated ecosystem protection and restoration strategy that is science-based and aligns conservation and restoration goals at the Federal, State, tribal, local, and regional levels.
  • Water Quality and Sustainable Practices on Land: Enhance water quality in the ocean, along our coasts, and in the Great Lakes by promoting and implementing sustainable practices on land.
  • Changing Conditions in the Arctic: Address environmental stewardship needs in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent coastal areas in the face of climate-induced and other environmental changes.
  • Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Observations, Mapping, and Infrastructure: Strengthen and integrate Federal and non-Federal ocean observing systems, sensors, data collection platforms, data management, and mapping capabilities into a national system and integrate that system into international observation efforts.
Credit: Department of the Interior

Credit: Department of the Interior

The implementation plan also outlined 200+ stakeholder-vetted actions that identified the most pressing challenges and available resources to tackle the issues. As of March 2015, of the 200+ actions in the plan, 77% of the actions were either completed or “well underway”; approximately one-third of the 2013 actions are fully completed; only 4% had not yet been started; and only one of the items were deemed “overdue.” That’s a pretty good start, considering how long it takes things to be organized on both federal and state levels.

In addition to the NOC, Regional Planning Bodies (RPBs) were created to integrate Federal, State, and Tribal representatives in the region-specific planning efforts. One very successful example of this is the Northeast Regional Planning Body, the first to be launched and which had a hand in coordinating the creation of new offshore windfarms.


While environmentalists as well as some fishing industry officials and state authorities have embraced the NOP, others have described it as an overreach of the Obama administration seeking to limit the rights of recreational anglers, oil and gas companies, and others. Several House republicans believe it will expand the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that the NOP is just an example of the current administration’s determination to spread deeper regulatory authority over land, sea, and air.

But the NOP is not a regulatory measure. It is a coordination measure. The plan does not authorize any new regulations or federal spending. Instead, it would coordinate more than 100 different ocean laws that already exist.

What can we do?

Credit: Healthy Oceans Coalition.

Credit: Healthy Oceans Coalition.

Tomorrow, the House Committee on Natural Resources is hosting a hearing on the NOP, with witnesses from charter boat operations and farming organizations arguing that a fully-realized NOP would interfere with fishing laws already in place, and may even impose regulatory measures on inland activities that may connect to the sea.

For my part, working in a Congressman’s office, I will encourage him to submit written testimony to the hearing in support of the NOP. Thankfully for me, I work for someone extremely passionate about ocean stewardship, and I find myself in a position that can help his cause along.

But for people not working on “The Hill”? Speak up! Ocean advocacy goes a long way. The voices in support of an issue, the more you will be heard, even all the way in DC.


Learn more about the National Ocean Policy:

Executive Order 13547 –Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes

National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan

House Committee on Natural Resources: National Ocean Policy


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