GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 20, 2010

Feds' ocean management gets new structural layer

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

By executive order, President Obama has hit the go button for the creation of a political system for writing ocean and Great Lakes usage plans overseen by a new National Ocean Council.

The ideas involved including "marine spatial planning" and "ecosystem based management" have had a champion for years in Jane Lubchenco, a leading academic scientist before her nomination to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Marine spatial planning has its closest terrestrial analog in simple zoning, but as White House officials Tuesday conceded, "instead of mapping it out," as a zoning plan would do, the new bureaucracy — with nine regional advisory committees reporting to the National Ocean Council — would attempt to work out how shipping, commercial and recreational fishing, recreational, aquaculture, mining/drilling and other uses might be fit together, if continued mining and drilling are allowed at all.

The Executive Order signed by the president Monday said he was providing for the "development of coastal and marine spatial plans that build upon and improve existing federal, state, tribal and regional decision-making and planning processes."

The eight ocean regions of NOAA Fisheries plus the Great Lakes as a ninth will be organized into regions over which newly established bodies of federal, state and tribal officials preside to debate and decide recommended marine spatial plans.

It is intended that each region has its own unique set of values and uses for the seas — inland or off-shore. But those plans must pass muster for compatibility with the federal policies at the National Ocean Council.

Environmental groups have applauded the executive order, but recreational and commercial fishing writers have been concerned that political power struggles for spatial planning consideration include commercial interests likely to overpower them.

"This appears to be an attempt by the executive branch to circumvent the established legislative process and enact policy that failed as legislation five years in a row," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

"In a battle of tradeoffs as between oil and mineral extraction, transportation, recreational use, national security, aquaculture, renewable-energy development and most significantly 'sustained ecosystem functions and services,'" Washington, D.C., lawyers David Frulla and Shaun Gehan wrote in the March issue of National Fisherman. Among their clients is the New Bedford-based Fisheries Survival Fund.

The president last year assigned the Task Force on Environmental Quality to produce an action plan for marine spatial planning, which since its first public iteration has not changed significantly despite thousands of public comments and dozens of briefings by special interest groups.

The National Ocean Council is set up to include the entire cabinet as well as the NOAA administrator, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the director of national intelligence, the director of the national science foundation, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security, the assistants to the president for homeland security, counter terrorism, domestic policy, energy and climate change and economic policy, as well as a federal government employee designated by the vice president.

The co-chairs of the National Ocean Council — the chair of the council on Environmental Quality and the director of the Office of Science and Technology — may also appoint additional members.

Nancy Sutley presided over the deliberations as chair of the Council of Environmental Quality, while John Holdren was selected from the faculty at Harvard to be the president's director of science and technology.

Holdren and Lubchenco were given joint confirmation hearings by the Senate Commerce Committee in 2009.

"It's a bottom-up approach," said a White House staffer who briefed the Times on the issue.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.