An interview with David Helvarg on a National Ocean Policy

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Last week, Admiral Allen testified before Congress on the merits of a National Ocean Policy as a representative of the Obama Administration’s Ocean Policy Task Force. To provide some outside perspective on the issue, Coast Guard Compass brings you an interview with ocean activist and author David Helvarg.

Mr. Helvarg, president of Blue Frontier Campaign, is an award winning journalist and author of “Rescue Warriors – The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes” and has attended or viewed all six public meetings of the Ocean Policy Task Force. All opinions expressed by Mr. Helvarg are his own and posting this interview in no way reflects those of the United States Coast Guard. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.

David Helvarg
David Helvarg

Coast Guard Compass: As an author, journalist and activist, I think it is fair to say you’ve observed the Ocean Policy Task Force from almost every conceivable angle. Are you convinced that America needs a National Ocean Policy? And, if so, are we taking the right approach to crafting one?

David Helvarg: More than a quarter century after President Reagan declared a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase we’re overdue for a national ocean policy crafted to protect and manage the largest, most challenging wilderness frontier in our nation’s history, one that also happens to be the major area of operation for the US Coast Guard.

Right now our public seas are administered by more than 20 federal agencies, along with a welter of state, local and tribal authorities under 140 separate laws with little or no regard for the cumulative impacts of competing and often overlapping uses of our coasts and ocean. The result is many citizen stakeholders are drowning in red tape even as our marine ecosystems continue to degrade. Two major blue ribbon panels on the Ocean issued reports in 2003 and 2004 calling for a more unified and comprehensive approach to ocean governance.

Given the delay in implementing their recommendations, I think the 180-day multi-agency, public and transparent approach being taken by the President’s Task Force is a correct and timely one. If it results, as many believe it will, in an effective coordinated policy at the executive level (under a White House Ocean Council) we’ll have gotten half way there. I believe we should then codify this policy through legislation and make it the law of the land. Of course to extend this new (really first) comprehensive approach to the seas beyond our marine boundaries we’ll also need to ratify the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Convention, as noted by Admiral Allen in his Senate testimony.

Admiral Thad Allen
Admiral Thad Allen

Coast Guard Compass: You’ve attended or viewed all of the public meetings; you’ve read the Task Force’s Interim Report; and you heard Commandant Allen’s assessment of it when he testified on Capitol Hill last week. Is what you heard in those meetings reflected in what you read in the report and heard from Admiral Allen?

David Helvarg: I saw over 2,000 people turn out for these “public listening sessions,” and heard hundreds of citizens and experts testify in six cities across the nation. While each meeting reflected its own set of geographic concerns (over the need to protect Arctic resources in Alaska, restore coastal wetlands in Louisiana or deal with Invasive Species on the Great Lakes), a common theme among 75-80 percent of those who testified was support for the government taking a more unified approach in addressing marine environmental and safety concerns and the need for a single point of federal contact and collaboration for people already working on solutions at the local, state and regional levels. The meetings also provided a respectful forum for dissenting voices.

I thought these sessions reflected the constructive tone of the Interim Report the Task Force issued September 10. Of course the Devilfish is in the details, which should become clearer with the Task Force’s final report to the President December 9 that will outline how to implement ocean policy through what’s referred to as Marine Spatial Planning.

I thought Admiral Allen’s Senate testimony November 4 made a cogent case for this new approach by identifying a mind-boggling range of problematic issues from the growth of commercial shipping to overfishing to climate-linked ocean acidification before arguing that, “A comprehensive approach is imperative to address these many challenges.”

Coast Guard Compass: The Coast Guard has been pretty forward looking when it comes to calling for a national policy to protect our nation’s waterways through initiatives like the Evergreen Process and the 2007 Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security and Stewardship. Do you think the Task Force process was a natural outgrowth of that kind of thinking? Or, do you see this new initiative taking policy making and enforcement in a different direction?

David Helvarg: I believe the kind of strategic thinking the Coast Guard is involved in through scenario-based projects like the Evergreen (I’d call it Everblue) process and just the fact of it being a multi-mission maritime agency puts it in a strong position to adapt to a national ocean policy based on Marine Spatial Planning.

EvergreenMarine Spatial Planning (previously known as Ecosystem-Based Management) is such a new field of applied science that agreed standards and metrics for measuring its practice and success are not yet in place. Practical examples of MSP range from a fishing-family based initiative in Port Orford Oregon to an ocean management plan now being implemented by the State of Massachusetts.

My own understanding of Marine Spatial Planning is as a kind of ocean and coastal zoning that would incorporate a system of cleaned up watersheds and estuaries, greener ports and offshore shipping lanes, wildlife migration corridors, clearly delineated fossil fuel and clean energy offshore production, national defense training and fishing areas, recreational and marine wilderness parks, invasive species controls and other integrated ocean management activities that produce measurable public benefits.

As a regulator and enforcement agency the Coast Guard is already involved in this on a limited but daily basis, selecting shipping lanes that avoid right whale feeding areas for example or using AIS data to determine if an LNG sighting will create maritime transport problems. Marine Spatial Planning, by identifying and defining active space for legitimate ocean users and creating new observation tools can also improve Maritime Domain Awareness and make it easier to separate out the bad actors in the marine environment be they terrorists, poachers, pirates or polluters.

Coast Guard Compass: Listening to the Commandant’s testimony last week, the Arctic was clearly high on his list of issues a national ocean policy should address. What kinds of challenges are we facing in the Arctic?

CGC Polar Sea breaking ice in the Northern Arctic
CGC Polar Sea breaking ice in the Northern Arctic

David Helvarg: Huge. We’re talking about America’s fifth blue water coast emerging in a melting Arctic that has also become the center of a ‘Cold Rush’ for natural resources and new shipping routes between Asia and Europe along with adventure tourism and marine mammal extinctions linked to the loss of sea ice. The Coast Guard is trying to respond without the assets to do the Aids to Navigation, SAR, pollution response and other capabilities needed in this incredibly dangerous and dynamic environment.

The Ocean Task Force has said the Arctic will be a special area of concern. An example of why we need a comprehensive policy approach is reflected in a recent decision by the Secretary of Commerce (who oversees NOAA) to ban commercial fishing in 250,000 square miles of Arctic waters north of the Bering Sea until the impacts of this rapidly changing ecosystem are better understood. His decision was supported and encouraged by both commercial fishermen and environmentalists. At the same time the Department of Interior continues to issue oil and gas drilling permits in these same high-risk waters ignoring the precautionary principle (“first, do no harm”) being practiced by its sister agency. A comprehensive National Ocean Policy would prevent this kind of inconsistent stove piped approach to managing the Arctic.

Guardians boarding a fishing vessel as part of a maritime safety mission
Guardians boarding a fishing vessel as part of a maritime safety mission

Coast Guard Compass: Admiral Allen also spent a lot of time discussing the need for a consistent and integrated framework to implement a National Ocean Policy. What kinds of challenges does the Coast Guard face in implementing and enforcing a National Ocean Policy?

David Helvarg: The Coast Guard will be the operational arm of any new ocean policy. In some ways, just as fishing closures and no-take areas are easier to enforce than shifting rules on commercial net size, days at sea, bycatch reduction, etc. an integrated offshore zoning system will be easier to police and protect than the present anarchic state of our seas. Getting there of course will be a long challenging process involving ongoing science research, locally based management decisions and societal choices on how best to use, protect and restore our blue frontier.

The major challenge the Coast Guard will face under this new policy I believe will be the same one it faces every day, which is capacity. Presently the USCG is operating on a global field with a force slightly larger than the New York Police Department while operating cutters and other assets that would not look out of place in a maritime museum.

Given the challenges of an increasingly crowded and threatened world that’s 71 percent saltwater, including our nation’s emerging Arctic waters, I’d argue that the Coast Guard needs to double in size in the next decade and double again by 2030 till it’s closer in size to the U.S. Marine Corps than the NYPD if it’s to meet its role providing safety, security and stewardship on our public waters. How that can be done is another discussion.

Coast Guard Compass: Last month, you wrote a fairly provocative piece for the Huffington Post resurrecting the concept of a Department of the Ocean. This idea has been visited – and rejected – in the past. Why do you think now is the right time to restart this debate? And, what role would you see the Coast Guard playing in a Department of the Ocean?

David Helvarg: The idea of a Department of the Ocean has not been rejected so much as lost in the shuffle of history. The first blue ribbon panel on the ocean, the Stratton Commission of the 1960s, proposed an Ocean Agency with the Coast Guard at its heart but President Johnson had just created the Department of Transportation and to give his brainchild more ballast (in terms of size and number of employees) transferred the Coast Guard from Treasury to DOT ending that idea.

In 2003, the Pew Ocean Commission proposed a stand-alone agency that might incorporate NOAA (from the Department of Commerce) and the Coast Guard. This idea was championed by former Coast Guard Admiral Roger Rufe with support from fellow commission member (now head of NOAA) Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Commission Chair Leon Panetta (now Director of CIA). However, with the hurried Post 9/11 establishment of DHS and the Coast Guard’s transfer there, the idea of an independent ocean agency again lost traction. But as several Senators asked in the November 4 hearing on our nation’s proposed new ocean policy, “Who will be in charge? Who will be the lead agency?”

I think a Department of the Ocean made up of the U.S. Coast Guard on the operational side and NOAA for policy, resource management and science is the logical answer to that question. A cabinet level position comparable to the Department of Interior would also reflect the scale of our exterior blue frontier that is also key to our economy, security and environment. As I state in ‘Rescue Warriors’ its an idea that may not be politically feasible at the moment, but one I think would best serve the public interest and therefore deserves serious discussion in the context of a new U.S. ocean policy.

Admiral Allen and NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Admiral Allen and NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco

CONTENT DISCLAIMER: The material in the preceding article is designed to provide the opinion of a leading expert in the area of National Ocean Policy, and prompt public discussion on this topic. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of Mr. David Helvarg and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the United States Coast Guard.

4 comments on “An interview with David Helvarg on a National Ocean Policy”

  1. What a thoughtful interview. Both the questions posed and answers given were on-target. Let’s see more of these in the future. I’ll be looking forward to the next round.

  2. Mr. Helvarg does a great job summing up the major points of the current ocean policy discussion very succinctly. It’s time for a more unified approach. Very interesting interview – thanks so much for sharing it!

  3. Extremely insightful and timely interview. A unified approach under the Department of the Ocean is a great and sensible idea.

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