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The Metric

Sep 15, 2015

Ocean science, politics, and management at the White House

Docks on the Chesapeake Bay, outside of Baltimore, Maryland (photo by Ariana Spawn)

As the management adage goes, "you can't manage what you can't measure." At the EPI, we're all about integrating data and indicators into environmental policy and decision-making. This summer, I was fortunate to receive an on-the-ground lesson in how the United States government is putting this concept into practice for ocean and coastal management.

From May through August I worked with the National Ocean Council in Washington, DC, as part of an internship with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The National Ocean Council was created five years ago to oversee implementation of President Obama’s National Ocean Policy. Established by Executive Order in July 2010, the National Ocean Policy created a blueprint for integrated ocean management in the United States and strengthened interagency and cross-jurisdictional coordination on ocean and coastal management issues.

As with all ecosystem management, maintaining ocean and coastal health is a challenging prospect. The United States’ exclusive economic zone covers more ocean than any other country, and our coastline is so long that it could wrap around Earth nearly four times. There are upwards of 27 federal offices and agencies involved in ocean and coastal decision-making, depending on who’s counting. And to make this challenge even more daunting, the country’s marine ecosystems are out of sight for most Americans, except of course for coastal residents and summer beachgoers who live, work and play at the shoreline. Many changes to ocean and coastal systems are not visible to the naked eye and must be measured empirically. From these measurements, we know that the ocean is rapidly transforming as a result of human activities – biodiversity loss from overfishing, nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, ocean acidification from carbon emissions, and sea level rise resulting from climate change. These ecosystem-altering pressures heighten the need for robust data to inform marine management decisions: the future of America’s coastal cities, seafood industries, and beach vacations depend on this crucial information.

The National Ocean Policy addresses these data needs head-on in two main ways. First, the National Ocean Policy is focused on regional marine planning: the policy designated nine clustered marine regions in the United States and encouraged each region to develop individual marine plans to coordinate ocean uses in their state’s coastal zones. Data sharing and data management are central tenets of regional marine planning under the National Ocean Policy. Many of the marine regions are in the process of setting up or have already established regional data portals, which serve as central repositories for ocean and coastal related information in each region. These portals facilitate data sharing between management entities and ensure that regional decision-making is based on the best available ecosystem data.

An often-cited example of good data-informed decision-making comes from right here in New England. Coastal managers in Massachusetts altered shipping channels for vessels traveling to and from Boston Harbor after mapping data revealed a problematic overlap between endangered North Atlantic right whale habitat and the current shipping lanes (see Figure 1). The new regional data portals make geographical information system (GIS) mapping layers and other scientific information readily available to managers and to the public, thereby encouraging data-driven policy decisions. You can check out the Northeast’s regional data portal here, and the Mid-Atlantic’s regional data portal here.

Figure 1: A map of the pre-existing and proposed Boston Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) for vessels transiting Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) in Massachusetts. The TSS was shifted from the solid-line channel to the dotted-line channel to minimize the risk of ships striking endangered North Atlantic right whales in Stellwagen Bank. (Credit: Stellwagen Bank NMS)

The second way that the National Ocean Policy incorporates data into ocean management is through two federal interagency policy committees, one focusing on ocean science and technology and the other on ocean resource management. The two policy committees are made up of federal agency officials from agencies involved in U.S. ocean management, and they collectively report to the National Ocean Council. These committees together ensure that scientific data and resource management needs are adequately met throughout the U.S. government. The committees, for example, help advance monitoring to protect coastal and Great Lakes communities from harmful algal blooms and oversee development of data-driven mapping tools to monitor sea-ice extent in the Arctic to assist with future emergency operation planning and response. Through these and other efforts, the ocean science and technology and the ocean resource management policy committees help steer implementation of the National Ocean Policy on a day-to-day basis.

My work with the National Ocean Council highlighted the critical importance of ensuring a strong foundation of scientific data before charting a management course in any ecosystem – coastal, marine, or terrestrial. Working on federal ocean policy also illustrated that on local, regional, and global scales, environmental management decisions are based on more than scientific data alone. How we choose to design environmental policies is ultimately determined by our collective values, and by creating the National Ocean Policy, President Obama showed that his administration values a healthy, productive, and sustainably managed ocean.