American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Safeguarding America's Oceans

The following report appears as a News Note in the November 1997 issue of Geotimes. It is reprinted here with permission.

A new report released by the National Research Council (NRC) in July addresses a growing concern among ocean-resource managers and marine scientists that the government is not adequately protecting the nation's ocean resources. The report, Striking a Balance: Improving Stewardship of Marine Areas, is based in part on case studies of 11 regions where local communities had created unique solutions to resolve conflicts over fishing rights, offshore drilling, multiple usage, and other coastal issues.

Under the guidance of William Eichbaum (World Wildlife Fund), the NRC committee investigated key ingredients of successful programs. Three general principles emerged -- "coordination, information, and participation." The report refers to these principles in recommending methods to develop common national goals, expand opportunities for local and regional policy-making, and increase the use of effective management tools.

According to the NRC study, current management of the nation's coastal areas is "inefficient and wasteful of both natural and economic resources." Seven federal agencies are responsible for regulating activities such as ocean mining, boating, and commercial fishing. In addition, the federal government shares jurisdiction with a variety of state and local government agencies. Not only does this system create confusing and overlapping sets of regulations, it fails to consider the cumulative effects of all these different actions on the ocean.

Coastal regions, unfortunately, also fall victim to political expediency. While it's easy to talk about reducing consumption of valuable natural resources -- such as fish or minerals -- or managing them more efficiently, government leaders are frequently under political pressure to do just the opposite. Once they're no longer in office, the problem will be someone else's, and so the long-term effects of poorly made decisions are left for future generations to tackle.

Coastal zone governance
In response to these difficulties, the report recommends improved governance and management systems. A successful marine governance program needs a framework that includes clearly stated goals, a defined geological area, mechanisms to involve stakeholders, and a joint federal-state effort.

The report also recommends establishing a permanent national marine council, with representatives from all involved federal agencies. The marine council would coordinate actions, establish priorities, and hold states accountable for their actions that affect the ocean. In addition, regional marine councils would be set up on a case-by-case basis to handle high-conflict situations, where solutions are difficult to find, in order to protect resources considered vital to a locale. The councils would develop long-range plans, mediate and resolve disputes, and facilitate agreements. Members on the regional councils would be appointed by state governors and regional federal agency heads.

Ocean management
To resolve usage conflicts, the report suggests increasing the use of traditional, land-based management techniques -- such as zoning, liability schemes, user charges, and market rights. Other ocean-management suggestions include:

Striking a Balance grew out of a forum on ocean issues, sponsored by the National Research Council's Marine Board in April 1993. Participants at the forum agreed that "defining national goals and plans for the ocean is a critical prerequisite to both the economic investment and sound environmental stewardship of the ocean." The NRC report, while available to the public, is intended as a guide for scientists and policy-makers to improve governance of marine environments, and was prepared by the Committee on Marine Area Governance and Management. For more information, or to order a copy of Striking a Balance: Improving Stewardship of Marine Areas, contact the National Research Council or the National Academy Press.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Kasey Shewey, AGI Government Affairs Program
Posted July 6, 1998

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