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Challenges of a Changing Ocean: Can Congress Act in Time? | Commentary

In a Congress marred by gridlock and partisan brinkmanship, a surprising opportunity has emerged to strengthen our nation’s ocean and coastal communities, businesses and environment. Congress should seize the moment and establish the long-recommended National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes.

Unless Congress acts now, the opportunity will slip away.

The House and Senate Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) bills currently in conference contain competing provisions — with competing visions — for the future of ocean and coastal management in America. This legislative conflict is part of our country’s broader ideological struggle, but with this difference: On the ocean, no state government, chamber of commerce or environmental group can exercise coordinated and effective leadership alone.

The Senate-passed WRDA bill includes an amendment from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., that provides for a National Endowment for the Oceans that passed with strong bipartisan support. The endowment would authorize grants to universities, states and local organizations for ocean research, mapping, monitoring, conservation and restoration projects — work that is critical to coastal economies that rely on a healthy ocean with well-managed resources. It reflects the belief that the federal government has an important role to play in strengthening coastal communities, helping ocean-dependent businesses and improving the health of our ocean environment.

By contrast, the WRDA bill passed by the House of Representatives includes an amendment from Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, that would undermine our National Ocean Policy, smart ocean planning and ecosystem approaches to ocean resource management. In an era when we need government to work better, smarter, and more effectively, the National Ocean Policy and smart ocean planning are just common sense. They allow the local, state, tribal and federal entities responsible for ocean management to work across jurisdictional boundaries and proactively tackle challenges in a forward-looking way. To take those tools away would be bad for ocean health, bad for the ocean economy and bad for coastal communities.

This legislative head-to-head dispute reflects the broader ideological struggle that haunts the halls of Congress today. It’s between those who believe that the government can be a vehicle to serve the common good and those who believe that nearly all government action restricts personal freedom.

We have for too long taken the ocean for granted. Its immense size and apparent resilience fooled us into thinking that humans could draw on it for limitless protein and use it as a garbage dump. But now the ocean and our coastal communities face serious challenges. Coral reefs are in steep decline. Many fisheries continue to struggle. Water quality problems and toxic algae blooms threaten beaches and clam diggers. Ocean acidification is worsening each year, threatening multigeneration family-owned shellfish farms. Trash litters the open ocean, occasionally exacerbated by tragic events such as the Japanese tsunami. And sea level rise is just over the horizon.

The WRDA conferees and Congress should choose thoughtful long-term engagement to protect and enhance ocean quality over the all-too-common knee-jerk hostility toward any new government initiative.

Ironically, ocean issues didn’t generate such partisan conflict until recently. As a founding member of the bipartisan House Oceans Caucus, I can say that working across the aisle on ocean issues used to be far more commonplace. For example, the idea of a permanent ocean endowment was proposed back in 2004 by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy — a commission appointed entirely by President George W. Bush. When the commission first floated the idea of an ocean trust fund in a draft report and asked governors for comment, support was overwhelming and bipartisan. Of the 20 coastal governors who submitted comments on an ocean trust fund, 19 supported the idea — six Democrats and 13 Republicans. Only one Democratic governor expressed any opposition.

Coastal communities and stakeholders need help to cope with their rapidly changing ocean environment, and the Senate WRDA bill offers hope. Recently, more than 200 ocean and coastal stakeholders wrote to the WRDA conferees asking them to keep the National Endowment for the Oceans in the final bill and to delete the Flores rider attacking the National Ocean Policy.

Congress should seize the opportunity in the WRDA conference to reclaim its capacity for public leadership by taking action to cope with the challenges that our changing ocean has created for our nation’s coastal states, communities, businesses and families.

Tom Allen is the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers and a board member of the Ocean Conservancy. He represented Maine’s 1st District in Congress for six terms.

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