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January 2017 Issue

The New Congress Must Support
Our National Ocean Policy

By Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)
Ranking Member, U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
The fight for the long-term health of the oceans, Great Lakes and coasts is one of the most significant public policy challenges facing our nation.

The outcome of this fight matters, not only to surfers and fisherman, but to all Americans. Nearly half of the American population lives in coastal communities. Millions more flock to our beaches each year to enjoy the sights, the food and the recreational experiences unique to these locales. It is important to realize, however, that regardless of our zip code, marine ecosystems and resources benefit all of our lives.

The oceans are a vital driver of our economy. In 2013 alone, the ocean economy provided 3 million American jobs in 149,000 businesses that produced goods and services contributing $360 billion to the nation’s GDP. The oceans are one of our most valuable natural resources—supplying us with fish to feed our families, global trade routes to import and export goods, and potentially significant energy to power homes from wave (and other renewable) energy technology.

It is clear that the ocean enriches all of our lives, and because of that we are all responsible for its stewardship. Unfortunately, environmental pressures linked to global warming—excess carbon dioxide emissions, warming ocean temperatures and sea level rise—are already inflicting devastating damage to the health and biological diversity of our fragile ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems.

The absorption of excess carbon dioxide emissions into the ocean has increased the acidity of the water to the point that shellfish, corals and oysters are struggling to build and maintain their protective shells. Entire species of fish are vulnerable to predators and erosion. While we cannot predict the full impact of these changes, seafood supply chains will almost certainly be affected. We urgently need to learn more about the impact of ocean acidity on marine life and what we can do to mitigate and hopefully reverse the damage we’ve observed.

Warming ocean temperatures are also imposing stresses on our marine ecosystems. The ocean absorbs more than 90 percent of the heating caused by climate change. This warming is thought to trigger rapid growth of algae populations in the oceans and Great Lakes. These so-called harmful algal blooms spread out to cover vast swaths of ocean, blocking out sunlight and depleting oxygen levels in the water below. Some harmful algal blooms also produce toxins that kill fish and contaminate seafood. We need to study these populations of algae to better understand what triggers them to bloom and how to mitigate their effect on the environment. The potential implications for public health, tourism and the seafood industry are concerning.

Heat from global warming that doesn’t get stored in the oceans contributes to melting sea ice and glaciers. The resulting sea level rise is threatening the local infrastructure and livelihoods of millions of Americans who live along our coasts. Sea level rise puts additional Americans at risk for flooding as deadly storm surges are able to push farther inland.

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. Polling shows that the majority of Americans are concerned about the quality of the environment and think the U.S. government should be doing more to protect it.

As ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, I am a passionate supporter of the research programs led by agencies such as NOAA, NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The science and technology developments these agencies produce are crucial inputs to an efficient and sustainable approach to our most pressing environmental challenges. I was supportive of President Barack Obama when he established the National Ocean Policy (NOP) by executive order back in 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that year severely stressed a number of our Gulf Coast communities and stiffened our resolve to take action. An environmental crisis of this magnitude was a harsh lesson about just how fragile our marine environments are and how much we depend on them. It was time to roll up our sleeves, and I was thrilled to see the president put forth the nation’s first ever comprehensive ocean policy.

The NOP is a necessary first step toward developing an effective approach to the long-term management and stewardship of the oceans, Great Lakes and coasts—one that is driven by the science and the input of stakeholders. Building on recommendations of two bipartisan blue-ribbon commissions, the NOP coordinates the roles of 27 federal agencies through the establishment of a National Ocean Council. The council works with key stakeholders to create an integrated framework for tackling issues related to coastal and marine spatial planning, conservation, economic activity and sustainable use of resources.

Some have expressed concern that the NOP increases regulatory burden on business. While I am sensitive to the concerns of those in the seafood and energy production sectors, that’s simply not the case.

The NOP streamlines and harmonizes efforts at the federal, state and local level so resources are targeted where they are most needed. This will decrease redundancy and ease the regulatory burden.

The new Congress that will convene this January must unite behind the NOP because time is running out to stem the tide of destruction to the invaluable resources and ecosystems under our care.

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