Defense Media Network

The Oceans and Our Coasts Are Worth Protecting

President Barack Obama established the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (Task Force) on June 12, 2009. He directed the Task Force to create a national policy that “ensures protection, maintenance, and restoration of oceans, our coasts and the Great Lakes,” as well as to develop “a framework for improved stewardship, and effective coastal and marine spatial planning.”

“The oceans, our coasts, and the Great Lakes provide jobs, food, energy resources, ecological services, recreation, and tourism opportunities, and play critical roles in our Nation’s transportation, economy, and trade, as well as the global mobility of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security,” Obama wrote. “We have a stewardship responsibility to maintain healthy, resilient, and sustainable oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes resources for the benefit of this and future generations.”

The Task Force was established to determine the best ways to provide clean, safe beaches; abundant and wholesome seafood; thriving wildlife; a robust economy; and jobs and recreational opportunities from our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes. The Coast Guard was actively involved in representing the Department of Homeland Security on the Task Force and its various committees and working groups.

Led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and made up of senior-level leaders from two dozen federal departments and agencies, the Task Force delivered its Interim Report in September 2009 and an Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and marine Spatial Planning in December 2009.

On July 19, 2010, the president signed an Executive Order that adopts the Final Recommendations of the Task Force charting a new course for stewardship of America’s ocean and coastal waters, as well as the Great Lakes. The Final Recommendations of the Task Force included the country’s first National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts, and the Great Lakes, and established a National Ocean Council. These Final Recommendations also offered “a strengthened governance structure to provide sustained, high-level, and coordinated attention to ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes issues; targeted implementation strategy that identifies and prioritizes nine categories for action that the United States should pursue; and a framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning [CMSP] that establishes a comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based approach to address conservation, economic activity, user conflict, and sustainable use of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources.”

No matter where you live in the United States, your life is affected by the oceans, the Final Recommendations emphasized. “With over 95,000 miles of coastline and the largest Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] in the world, our Nation benefits from a wealth of goods and services derived from the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes. They provide food, fresh water, minerals, energy, and other natural resources and ecological benefits. They support tens of millions of jobs and play a critical role in our Nation’s transportation, economy, and trade, as well as in the global mobility and readiness of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security. They are also vital places for recreation, including boating, fishing, swimming, nature watching, and diving, which are critical to the economic, social, and cultural fabric of our country.”

Our ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes are sources of new renewable energy, such as wind, current, and tidal power. The Great Lakes, which account for 95 percent of the nation’s fresh surface water, and has more than 10,000 miles of coastline, has far-ranging effects on global weather patterns. And the large bodies of water on our planet absorb, transport, and radiate heat, keeping our planet within tolerable temperatures. Significantly change how these systems work, and everything changes.

Fragile and Resilient
Oceans both influence and are affected by climate change. Poor industrial and commercial practices ashore and offshore can pollute the water and impact the health of plants and wildlife, and ultimately humans. Habitat loss, reduced fish populations, invasive species, water quality, and the very ability of the environment to maintain its equilibrium are in the balance.

In the Arctic region, the sea ice has been melting and the permafrost thawing at an accelerated rate. Much of Alaska’s Bering Sea coast is facing significant erosion. The diminishing multi-year ice is both a problem and an opportunity for new and responsible development. When Adm. Thad Allen served as the Coast Guard commandant, he took key members of the Task Force on a visit to the region to see its vastness and learn more about the fragility of that marine environment. There they saw the exposed coastal area now regularly ravaged by storms. These severe Arctic storms – now more severe as a result of global climate change – are damaging the coastline, which are no longer protected by their cover of ice during much of the spring and fall seasons.

In addition to this fact-finding trip, Allen and other members of the Task Force took part in six hearings around the country to find out what people were thinking about the issues and to conduct the affairs of the task force in an open, transparent manner. The Coast Guard again helped in hosting most of these functions, providing up-close visits to busy port facilities, increasingly vulnerable marshes and estuaries, and other coastal resources.

As Americans, no matter where we live, are affected by those ocean environments. As vast and bountiful as the oceans may seem, they are very fragile. The Deepwater Horizon disaster that covered the Gulf of Mexico in oil, which then washed up on Gulf Coast beaches and wetlands, affected us all. The incident emphasized how important the maritime domain is to all of us, as well as underscored this interdependence, as well as both the delicate fragility and the surprising resilience of these ecosystems.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, under secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and administrator of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, has taken a very active role in the inception and leadership of the Task Force. She defined resilience as “the capacity of the system to absorb disturbance, to absorb change, to retain basic functioning despite disturbance, despite changes or to return to the basic functioning once it has been disturbed.”

These changes in the maritime domain – both natural and man-made – include increased storms, hurricanes, drought, fires, floods, erosion, ocean acidification, climate change, loss of habitat, overfishing, extinction of species, and pollution, among others.

Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning
The Task Force also developed a framework for effective CMSP. It includes an integrated, multi-year process for the flexible regional development and implementation of CMSP, facilitated and overseen by the National Ocean Council.

America’s ocean environments are very different in the various parts of the country, yet they are all interconnected. The CSMP process focuses on creating nine distinct regions that reflect the existing large marine ecosystems and establishes regional planning bodies that that include federal, state, and tribal representatives from each region. The regions are: Northeast, mid-Atlantic, south Atlantic, Great Lakes, Caribbean (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), Gulf of Mexico, West Coast, Pacific Islands (which includes Hawaii, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa), and Alaska/Arctic. Existing regional bodies, such as the Great Lakes Commission, the Governors’ South Atlantic Alliance, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean, the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, and the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health, will be involved.

The Task Force report defines coastal and marine spatial planning as a “comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes areas. CMSP identifies areas most suitable for various types or classes of activities in order to reduce conflicts among uses, reduce environmental impacts, facilitate compatible uses, and preserve critical ecosystem services to meet economic, environmental, security, and social objectives.”

The goal of CMSP is to provide for “sustainable, safe, secure, efficient, and productive uses of the ocean, coasts, and the Great Lakes, including those that contribute to the economy, commerce, recreation, conservation, homeland and national security, human health, safety, and welfare; to protect, maintain, and restore the Nation’s ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources and ensure resilient ecosystems and their ability to provide sustained delivery of ecosystem services; to provide for and maintain public access to the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes; to promote compatibility among uses and reduce user conflicts and environmental impacts; improve the rigor, coherence, and consistency of decision-making and regulatory processes; increase certainty and predictability in planning for and implementing new investments for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes uses; and enhance interagency, intergovernmental, and international communication and collaboration.”

The regional planning bodies will bring together federal, state, tribal, and other stakeholder representatives to determine appropriate goals and objectives to support the overarching national CMSP, to develop regional goals, objectives, and ultimately regional coastal and marine spatial plans. The CMSP effort will also involve the entire spectrum of recreational users, who have a long tradition of participating in the stewardship of these resources.

“As an example of regional involvement, we envision the Northeast Regional Ocean Council to determine the ideal places for industry to site wind farms,” said Dr. John Oliver, a retired Navy judge advocate general Corps officer with a specialty in international law, who helped coordinate the Coast Guard’s involvement in the Task Force. “Perhaps it would make sense for them to be co-located with aquafarms or other power-generation infrastructure to maximize productive use and while best preserving the maritime environment.”

Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, then-deputy commandant for Coast Guard Operations, answers questions posed by reporters concerning the release of the Interim Report of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (IOPTF) in San Francisco, Calif., on Sept. 17, 2009. From left to right: Dr. Kit Batten, science advisor to the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior; Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara; Nancy Sutley, chair of the IOPTF and White House Council on Environmental Quality; Byron Black, senior maritime safety and security advisor to the secretary of the Department of Transportation; Rear Adm. Herman Shelanski, U.S. Navy, director of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division. From August-October, six public meetings were held: San Francisco; Anchorage, Alaska; New Orleans, La.; Cleveland, Ohio; Providence, R.I.; and Honolulu, Hawaii, where it was broadcased live via satellite and enabled the residents in American Samoa, Guam, and Commonwealth of Northern Marianas to participate. USCG photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Schofield

From Knowledge, Understanding
New technologies, including unmanned vehicles, remote sensing platforms and satellites, as well as new networks and analytical capability, increasingly help us to better collect and integrate data on the health and productivity of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.

With advances in science and technology, we can deliver better and timelier information and understanding that will help us create the right policies and make better decisions to respond, and adapt to a changing global environment. “We’re developing a framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning, looking at the entire marine ecosystem. This will be a holistic, comprehensive, and science-based database of all the factors that affect the health and viability of the maritime region,” Oliver said.

The science-based effort will look at such issues as how the biological activity, currents, weather, climate, and other elements can be of productive use to the nation; how to better understand the way an ecosystem protects and heals itself; or how an estuary purifies water, or a delta protects a community up river. As we learn more, we gain a better understanding of how the genetic, habitat, and species diversity are connected to the ecosystem’s functional aspects.

Data collection and analysis of human activities – such sources of pollution, commercial shipping and fishing practices, and recreational boat traffic – is also important.

One strong and unanimous recommendation of the Task Force was for the U.S. to join the Law of the Sea Convention. The Task Force did not create or propose any new restrictions or regulations, but instead set up a proposed system to deal with challenges and opportunities facing the ocean and our coasts in a comprehensive and rational way. “For example, we want to maximize the efficiency, safety, and security for the thousands of commercial vessels that come in and out of our ports, which is a key to our dynamic economy. By better data collection, integration, and dissemination we can propose ways to validate or improve existing traffic lanes and regulations,” said Oliver. “We don’t want to complicate the traffic schemes for entering and leaving port, but working with all stakeholders we anticipate improvements to make them better for all concerned.”

In addition to the people who work on or near the water, countless others enjoy boating, swimming, or going to the beach just to relax, dive, fish, or just enjoying being with nature at the always dramatic interface between the shore and water.

“America’s rich and productive coastal regions and waters support tens of millions of jobs and contribute trillions of dollars to the national economy each year,” the Final Recommendations stated. “They also host a growing number of important activities, including recreation, science, commerce, transportation, energy development, and national security and they provide a wealth of natural resources and ecological benefits.”

“The Department of Homeland Security and Coast Guard applaud the Oceans Policy Task Force’s efforts to fulfill President Obama’s vision for a national approach to maintaining the health and vibrancy of the world’s maritime regions,” said Adm. Robert J. Papp, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “The Task Force’s Final Recommendations provide a balance between protecting and preserving the marine environment and promoting economic progress. The framework protects the interests of all users, improves ocean stewardship, and provides the foundation for improving maritime governance at the international, regional, state, and local levels.”

The ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes deeply, directly, and intricately impact the lives of all Americans, whether we work on or live next to the ocean, or are far from any shore in the country’s heartland. Through this deliberate and thoughtful process, the United States can grow as a nation that responsibly ensures that its oceans, our coasts, and the Great Lakes are healthy and resilient, safe and productive, and understood and treasured for the well-being, prosperity, and security of us all and for generations to come.

National Priority Objectives

  1. Ecosystem-based Management: Adopt ecosystem-based management as a foundational principle for the comprehensive management of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.
  2. Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning: Implement comprehensive, integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management in the United States.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

National Ocean Policy

It is the Policy of the United States to:

  • Protect, maintain, and restore the health and biological diversity of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources;
  • Improve the resiliency of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems, communities, and economies;
  • Bolster the conservation and sustainable uses of land in ways that will improve the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems;
  • Use the best available science and knowledge to inform decisions affecting the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes, and enhance humanity’s capacity to understand, respond, and adapt to a changing global environment;
  • Support sustainable, safe, secure, and productive access to, and uses of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes;
  • Respect and preserve our nation’s maritime heritage, including our social, cultural, recreational, and historical values;
  • Exercise rights and jurisdiction and perform duties in accordance with applicable international law, including respect for and preservation of navigational rights and freedoms, which are essential for the global economy and international peace and security;
  • Increase scientific understanding of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems as part of the global interconnected systems of air, land, ice, and water, including their relationships to humans and their activities;
  • Improve our understanding and awareness of changing environmental conditions, trends, and their causes, and of human activities taking place in ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters; and
  • Foster a public understanding of the value of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes to build a foundation for improved stewardship.

Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is a senior science writer with MCR LLC in Arlington, Virginia.

This article first appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...