Ocean conservation groups are up in arms over a new White House executive order on ocean policy that emphasizes the economy, national security, and resource development.
The order, which President Donald Trump issued on 19 June, revokes and veers sharply from an earlier executive order implemented by Barack Obama in 2010. That earlier order, issued in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, emphasized ocean stewardship, environmental sustainability, and human health as well as recognizing the goals in the Trump administration’s document.
The new executive order “unquestionably moves in the wrong direction,” Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D. C.–based nonprofit, told Eos.
The order’s “abandonment of sustainable use and conservation as a core tenet of U.S. ocean policy is alarming,” she said. “With this order, we’ve lost the balance required to manage the ocean as an integrated and interdependent system.”
The executive order refers to the nation’s ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters as “foundational to the economy, security, global competitiveness, and well-being” of the country.
“Ocean industries employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy,” the document states. “Domestic energy production from Federal waters strengthens the Nation’s security and reduces reliance on imported energy. Our Armed Forces protect our national interests in the ocean and along the Nation’s coasts. Goods and materials that support our economy and quality of life flow through maritime commerce. Our fisheries resources help feed the Nation and present tremendous export opportunities.”
Some Mentions of Science
The order includes some nods to science and technology and to environmental protection. For instance, “clean, healthy waters support fishing, boating, and other recreational opportunities for all Americans.”
The order also states that the policy includes coordinating federal activities to manage ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters and “to provide economic, security, and environmental benefits for present and future generations of Americans.” It says that the policy is to “advance ocean science and technology” and “modernize the acquisition, distribution, and use of the best available ocean-related science and knowledge” in partnership with stakeholders including marine industries and the ocean science and technology community.
Developing an Ocean Policy Committee
The order establishes an interagency Ocean Policy Committee (OPC) to ensure federal agency coordination on ocean-related matters. It calls for the committee to “coordinate and inform the ocean policy-making process and identify priority ocean research and technology needs,” among other functions.
Development of the OPC “is well under way,” with an inaugural meeting planned for later this summer, according to Ross Gillfillan, spokesperson for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The emphasis is on stakeholder engagement, science and technology research needs, and ocean-related data, he told Eos.
Deerin Babb-Brott, OSTP’s principal assistant director for oceans and environment, will serve as OPC executive director, according to Gillfillan. Babb-Brott is a holdover from the Obama administration’s OSTP, and he has served two stints as director of the National Ocean Council, which was established under Obama’s executive order.
Questions About Whether the Science Language Goes Far Enough
Critics charge that the nods to science and the environment don’t go far enough. “While the new policy includes language about data and science, it ignores that these are tools to support a healthy ocean ecosystem, not to maximize resources extraction,” Jennifer Felt, ocean campaign director for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, told Eos.
“This announcement comes on the heels of the administration’s move to open up nearly all of America’s ocean waters to dirty and destructive oil and gas drilling. It describes our oceans as resources to be mined, not places to responsibly manage and protect,” she explained.
Margaret Spring, who was principal deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the Obama administration, told Eos that the executive order does have some positive aspects. “Number one, the Trump administration thought it was important to have an ocean policy,” said Spring, vice president of conservation and science and chief conservation officer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. She said that other positive aspects are that the document appears to support state leadership in ocean policy and recognizes a need for science in decision-making.
“What’s perplexing is that [the order] also deletes reference to scientific inquiry for understanding the ocean,” she added. “We really don’t know what that means. Is that sending a signal that there is going to be less support for science?”
Spring said that the most important thing is how the order is implemented. She said that although executive orders are very rarely challenged, any actions by federal agencies could be more challengeable because “there has to be an action for there to be a challenge.”
“Our major concern will be to get assurances that the focus isn’t only on extraction and use, because that ignores the fact that you have got to take care of the oceans for future generations,” Spring added.
“Misguided” Executive Order
“What really concerns me is that the [executive order] has a clear emphasis on use and exploitation as opposed to sustainability and resilience,” said Whitley Saumweber, who served as associate director for ocean and coastal policy in the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration.
Saumweber, an ocean policy consultant, told Eos that Trump’s executive order “goes in the opposite direction” from Obama’s, which Saumweber said stressed the need to ensure the health of ocean ecosystems in order to have a healthy society and healthy economy. Trump’s executive order “says, ‘Nope, we need to exploit, we need to use as much as we can.’”
Saumweber speculated that Trump may have issued the executive order at this time because June was national ocean month. “Maybe they wanted to do something related to oceans, misguided as it is.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer