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January 2017 Issue

Strong Leadership Needed to
Navigate Changing Seas Ahead

By Norm Mineta
Co-Chair, Joint Ocean Commission Initiative and
Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Transportation
Christine Todd Whitman,
Co-Chair, Joint Ocean Commission Initiative and
Former EPA Administrator, Governor of New Jersey

The incoming president has a historic opportunity to make the oceans a centerpiece of national policy and in so doing more fully realize the potential of this vast resource for the nation. President Barack Obama’s National Ocean Policy is a major and significant step in this direction that built upon work begun under President George W. Bush. The long history of bipartisan action on ocean issues is heartening to note and a reason to be optimistic about the future of our oceans.

Given the central importance of oceans to our economy and national security, it is imperative that the Donald Trump Administration considers oceans and coasts in formulating policies across the federal government. Oceans are the engines of our weather and climate and providers of food, protection, habitat, security, health and quality of life. Maritime and coastal activities fuel the economic engine not only of coastal states but also the heartland.

Recognizing that oceans, economy, health and progress are inextricably linked, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative has spent the last two years traveling America’s coastlines and engaging with local and regional leaders to identify priorities, opportunities, challenges, needs and risks at a series of regional roundtables on the East, West and Gulf Coasts and in the Alaskan Arctic. Through these roundtables, we brought together a wide cross section of interests representing community leaders, key industries, advocates and all levels of government to discuss issues of regional importance and national significance and to hear their ideas and concerns.

It is clear to us that our oceans are changing dramatically and rapidly. They are also becoming an increasingly busy place that we are using in new and different ways. The widening of the Panama Canal and the opening of the Northwest Passage due to melting sea ice create new pathways for shipping and commerce. While opportunities to use our oceans are increasing, we also face serious challenges. Ocean temperatures are rising, accelerating the rate of sea level rise and increasing coastal flooding and land loss. In addition, there is growing scientific evidence that warmer waters will lead to more intense coastal storms, which threaten the lives and safety of coastal residents, the integrity of public and private infrastructure, and key industries.

Priorities for the Trump Administration, Congress
Informed by the discussions at each regional roundtable, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative has prepared a set of actions that our nation’s leaders must take to improve the management of our oceans. The report will be released online in February 2017 and will feature nearly 30 actions for the Trump Administration, Congress and state and local leaders. In advance of the report’s release, we’d like to share four of the high-priority areas that we have identified.

First, our nation’s leaders must do more to promote resilient ocean communities and economies. In the United States, more than 40 percent of the population lives in coastal counties. These counties generate almost half of U.S. gross domestic product. Unfortunately, millions of people and economic assets are at risk due to coastal flooding. As sea level continues to rise, coastal communities and infrastructure are threatened. Alaska is considering moving villages inland, and coastal communities in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere are regularly experiencing 100-year floods and storm surges. In order to protect coastal communities and grow coastal economies, investments in coastal resilience need to be among our highest priorities.

Second, the United States must continue to lead in the Arctic. The region is an emerging frontier and vital to U.S. national interests. Environmental changes are already affecting human communities in the Arctic in the form of reduced food security (due to the loss of whaling, sealing and other native harvest practices), more severe storm damage, greater environmental threats from commercial activities, and, in some cases, the planned relocation of entire communities. The Arctic needs more attention from senior leadership and investment to create a sustained economic development program, repair and upgrade critical infrastructure, and conduct additional scientific research. Given the strategic importance of the Arctic, the United States must exercise leadership and make significant and strategic investments in this region.

Third, the United States must sustain its leadership on international ocean issues. The problems facing our oceans are global in their severity and scope and require global solutions. The United States has the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone—one that touches the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans—and is uniquely positioned to assume a leadership role on ocean issues. Recently, we have demonstrated significant leadership on ocean issues. For example, the U.S. Department of State convened the first Our Ocean Conference in 2014, which brought unprecedented attention to ocean issues. At the most recent conference in 2016, the United States launched the Safe Ocean Network to coordinate international partners to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Sustained leadership is needed to protect ocean ecosystems and build a brighter future for coastal communities globally.

Fourth, the Trump Administration and Congress should close the critical gap in ocean science, research and observing. The United States continues to suffer from a serious shortage of fiscal support for ocean science, research, exploration and observing. As the oceans undergo significant changes in their chemistry due to climate change, including ocean acidification, substantial investments in ocean science are critical to understand the complex relationship between oceans and climate. Furthermore, investments in ocean science and research spur innovation, address important national and global challenges, create jobs, and lead to the development and implementation of advanced technologies that save lives, protect property and support our economy.

Oceans are integral to our health, our economy and our national identity. And yet, at no time in our history have our coasts and oceans been more vulnerable. If our ecosystems, economies and livelihoods are to be sustained for future generations, it will take a visionary president willing to follow the lead of states and regions to integrate the health of our oceans into our national dialog. We owe it to the country and the world to achieve this vision, one in which our oceans and coasts are clean, safe, sustainably managed and preserved for the benefit of future generations.

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