First U.S. National Ocean Policy Established – Congress Just Needs to Support It

First U.S. National Ocean Policy Established – Congress Just Needs to Support It

Our oceans and coasts are in crisis.[1] Faced with the devastating impacts of global warming, overfishing, industrialization, and pollution,[2] the health of marine ecosystems are at a tipping point and deteriorating rapidly. In 2010, President Obama issued an Executive Order[3] that created America’s first National Ocean Policy. This new national policy created a window of opportunity to address the plight of failing marine ecosystems and fix a broken system of ocean governance. 

For reasons that have to do with federalism principles and a historically piecemeal approach to ocean management, no regulatory entity oversees U.S. ocean waters as a whole.[4]  Coastal states exercise exclusive control over the first three miles of coastal waters, and the federal government has sovereignty over the expansive Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends two hundred miles offshore.[5] Overall management of ocean and coastal waters is divided among numerous federal, state, and local agencies, operating under different, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting regulatory regimes and objectives.[6] As a result, each activity or threat to ocean health is typically considered in isolation; the coordinated management of cumulative impacts is rare and difficult to achieve.[7]

The National Ocean Policy is the first federal ocean program to espouse principles of ecosystem-based management (“EBM”). EBM is an integrated approach to managing ocean resources that considers the entire ecosystem and the cumulative impacts of human activities and environmental changes.[8] This holistic approach is crucial to preserving our failing ocean ecosystems. 

To implement EBM, the National Policy calls for the creation of Regional Planning Bodies to engage in comprehensive coastal and marine spatial planning of the Large Marine Ecosystems bordering U.S. coasts.[9] Coastal and Marine Spatial Plans will take into account ecosystem-wide effects, identify vulnerable areas, prioritize ocean uses, and designate regions for suitable uses and activities.[10] 

The National Ocean Policy has been controversial among some congressional and industry circles because it seems to expand federal authority over a historically state-dominated field and threatens to saddle commercial development with more environmental priorities and protection.[11] More recently, states and regional partnerships have taken initiatives to implement the National Ocean Policy, but ocean programs are still underfunded by Congress.[12] William Ruckelshaus, co-chairman of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, said in a statement, “We cannot let partisan politics threaten our ability to adequately manage ocean resources to improve ocean health and support numerous businesses and jobs around the country.”[13]

Given the results on November 6, the Obama Administration has new leverage to spur congressional cooperation to address global climate change. Ocean health is a critical piece of that puzzle, and it’s time for Congress to step up to the plate. 


— Laura Welikson, Associate 

[1] White House Council on Envtl. Quality, Final Recommendations of The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force 12-13 (2010), available at [hereinafter Task Force Recommendations].

[2] Id. at 1-2.

[3] Exec. Order No. 13,547; 75 Fed Reg. 43,023 (July 22, 2010).

[4] Robin Kundis Craig, Regulation of U.S. Marine Resources: An Overview of the Current Complexity, 19 Nat. Resources & Env’t 3, 3 (2004).

[5] Pew Ocean Commission, America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change 26 (2003), available at

[6] Id. at 26-27.

[7] Karen L. Mcleod et al., Scientific Consensus Statement on Marine Ecosystem-Based Management, Commc’n P’ship for Sci. and the Sea (COMPASS) 1 (2005), available at [hereinafter Scientific Consensus Statement].

[8] Scientific Consensus Statement, at 1.

[9] Task Force Recommendations, supra note 1, at 51-52.

[10] Seeid. at 41.

[11] See, e.g., Rep. Doc Hastings, Ocean Policy Reaches Far Beyond the Sea, Energy Guardian(Jan. 20, 2012),

[12] Linda Roeder, States, Regions Lead Ocean Policy Efforts; Report Calls Program Funding Insufficient, 109 Daily Env’t Rep. A-6 (June 7, 2012).

[13] Id. (The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative was established in 2005 as a collaborative effort of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission. Its goal is to promote meaningful ocean policy reform).

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