The oceans that surround the U.S. create more than 2 million jobs and over $128 billion in gross domestic product annually. And with the continent thoroughly developed, we are being drawn into developing more and more of the oceans, driven by the profits from tourism, recreation, and living resources that the oceans provide. As a result, it’s beginning to look a lot like sprawl out there even without the telltale markers—the housing developments, highways and parking lots—that make up sprawl on land. Instead, “ocean sprawl” is a combination of offshore oil rigs, shipping lanes, wind farms and ever more ocean uses—and it puts increased pressure on ocean and coastal resources already under enormous strain as a result of overexploitation, habitat degradation, coastal pollution and climate change. This sprawl, and our ocean strain in general, has arisen in large part because our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes are currently governed by more than 140 laws and twenty different agencies, each operating under conflicting mandates and often failing to coordinate with one another.
That lack of coordination may now be coming to an end as the Obama administration’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force hosts public meeting across the country and has issued an interim report
outlining key elements of what will make up a national policy for the stewardship of the oceans, coast and Great Lakes. A key piece of the Task Force’s work is to develop a framework for forward-thinking ocean use planning.
Consider Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston, a feeding ground for humpback whales and endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose numbers have dwindled to no more than 350. Designated by Congress in 1992, the sanctuary was established to safeguard habitat for whales and other species. Nonetheless, Stellwagen Bank also hosts commercial shipping traffic and the greatest concentration of fixed-gear commercial fishing vessels on the Eastern seaboard. In these congested waters, whale entanglement and ship strikes have grown common, degrading the sanctuary to a point where it stands in need of “immediate care” according to Superintendent Craig MacDonald, who oversees the sanctuary. Proper zoning, or “marine spatial planning,” of the area would serve to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whales and other species, while ensuring that shipping and fishing take place in areas to which they’re suited.
The Task Force interim report, furthermore, has recommendations to help prevent sprawl on land from degrading the water quality of the oceans and Great Lakes. Runoff from paved areas, farmland and industrial sites carry oil, pesticides, fertilizers and other contaminants into estuaries and bays, causing beach closures, dead zones deprived of oxygen and fish kills. The task force recommends establishing a comprehensive monitoring framework integrated with state programs and the use of best management practices to reduce contaminants.
But among the most significant problems exacerbated by sprawl on land is the emission of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from transportation and power plants. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by sea water, raising its acidity and threatening coral and sea life that is essential to the food web of the ocean. NRDC’s documentary, Acid Test
, explains this reaction and highlights the need to act given how quickly the problem is growing; in fact, ocean acidity may double by 2100. The Oceans Policy Task Force is recommending a number of steps be taken to research the ocean acidification and its implications for marine ecosystems and its human costs. What you can do
Over the next four weeks you have a chance to make your own recommendations at Whitehouse.gov
page. This week, those in New England will have a chance to speak to the Oceans Policy Task Force directly at a public meeting in Providence, Rhode Island
, on September 24th. Remaining hearings are in Honolulu, Hawaii on Sept. 29; New Orleans, Louisiana on Oct. 19 (tentative); and Cleveland, Ohio on Oct. 29 (tentative)
Support sustainably harvested seafood. Check out which fish to avoid and which are okay in NRDC’s Sustainable Seafood Guide