Eugene H. Buck, Coordinator Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Congress may consider proposals to alter the relationship between environmental protection and sustainable resource management and development as a result of increased use of coastal and marine resources. Of particular interest are threats to marine water quality, pollutants posing risks to human health and safety, stress from continued growth and development of coastal areas, the contribution of offshore energy resources to U.S. energy security, habitat destruction and overharvesting of living marine resources, and climate change. The combination of more information about ocean and coastal resource issues, new recommendations on how they might be addressed, and the need to consider reauthorizing expired laws means that Congress is likely to give substantial attention to this issue area.
Two reports issued in 2004—one by the Pew Oceans Commission and the other by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy—noted declines in marine resources and shortcomings in the fragmented and limited approaches to resource protection and management in federal and state waters. Both reports called for bold responses from Congress and the Administration. Congress may consider whether to (1) provide additional funding for ocean and coastal resource management; (2) replace a fragmented administrative structure for ocean management with a more coherent federal organization; (3) reauthorize certain existing ocean and coastal laws; (4) adopt new approaches for managing marine resources, and (5) conduct oversight of estuarine management and protection programs, implementation of fishery reforms, and expanded OCS activities to foster energy independence.
On June 12, 2009, President Obama directed executive departments and federal agencies to establish an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This task force is charged with developing recommendations for a national policy and a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning. The task force has presented preliminary recommendations in its Interim Report and issued an Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning.
One issue of congressional interest is the decline in water quality, especially in coastal areas. One manifestation of this decline is the expansion of "dead zones"—areas where diminished oxygen (hypoxia) kills immobile marine life and drives away mobile organisms during some seasons of the year; another is the increasing frequency of toxic algal blooms that kill fish and leave toxic residues in shellfish. In some areas, chronic water quality problems cause declines of relatively immobile populations, including shellfish and corals. In estuaries, where pollutants are most concentrated and water circulation is limited (e.g., San Francisco, Galveston, and Chesapeake Bays), these declines have been pronounced. Each estuary has different water quality problems, based on factors such as shoreline development and land use, pollutants introduced from upstream watersheds, and internal water circulation. Adding to water quality concerns are chronic stresses from warming ocean temperatures, threatening corals and other biota, and rising ocean acidity caused by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
In addition to impacts on the marine environment, releases of pollutants into coastal waters can present risks to human health and safety. The consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish, and swimming in contaminated waters, are common pathways through which human exposure can occur. Although the direct discharge of waste and pollutants from vessels and facilities has fallen over time as a result of increased regulation, some substances and materials can persist in the environment and continue to present risks long after their initial release. For example, the disposal of chemical weapons in the ocean ceased in 1970, but the potential risks from this practice have received recent congressional attention. Further, runoff from the land has become an increasing contributor to pollution in coastal wasters, raising many complex issues as the diffuse nature of this source makes it difficult to control. Accidental releases also can occur. Oil and fuel spills can be particularly challenging and require substantial resources to remediate, depending on the size of the release.
A further concern is the increasing pressures and conflicts that arise from economic activity associated with continued human population growth in coastal areas. More than half the country's population now resides in coastal counties, and that percentage is forecast to grow as more people retire and seek the amenities of coastal living, or are attracted because of increasing employment opportunities. Within coastal areas, the most attractive and highest-valued properties often are the most at risk, exposed to the forces of wind and waves that accompany ocean storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Current projections that sea levels will continue to rise indicate that coastal sites will become more at risk in the future unless this threat is addressed through policies and actions.
Increased use of coastal and nearshore areas has promoted conflict with ocean energy development and production from outer continental shelf oil and gas platforms as well as wind farms. Development and production of various energy resources offshore, including petroleum, natural gas, tidal, and wind, are considered by many to be vital to U.S. energy security. However, controversy arises over how best to approach and promote this development, and how to balance conflicts with other competing uses, particularly in nearshore areas. Federal management of outer continental shelf (OCS) energy infrastructure is highly relevant to national ocean policy formation due to numerous federal management demands related to OCS stimulus spending, expanded OCS leasing programs, an extended continental shelf project in the Arctic, and related international ocean objectives.
Additional OCS issues for Congress have emerged as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil release, beginning in April 2010. What lessons should be drawn from the incident? What technological and regulatory changes may be needed to meet risks peculiar to drilling in deeper water? How should Congress distribute costs associated with a catastrophic oil spill? What interventions may be necessary to ensure recovery of Gulf resources and amenities? What does the Deepwater Horizon incident imply for national energy policy, and the tradeoffs between energy needs, risks of deepwater drilling, and protection of natural resources and amenities?
Habitat destruction, aggressive harvesting, and unintended mortality incidental to other marine activities have combined to stress and deplete many fish, shellfish, marine mammal, and marine invertebrate (e.g., coral) populations. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other laws seek to protect habitat and provide for sustainable management of living marine resources. Determining the appropriate balance among resource/habitat protection, sustainable use, and economic development is a perennial concern for Congress.
The potentially harmful effects of naval sonar on marine mammals has received attention. A recent Supreme Court decision upheld the authority of the Navy to conduct training exercises involving the use of mid-frequency active sonar in ocean waters off the coast of southern California. The Navy had argued that this type of sonar is critical to national security because of its ability to detect smaller, quieter submarines. The court's decision has raised questions about how protection of marine mammals might be balanced with national security needs in the future.
A number of additional emerging issues relate to climate change, including the role of the ocean in mediating climate change as well as biological, physical, and chemical changes in the marine. environment accompanying climate change. Sea level rise, ocean acidification, and carbon sequestration via ocean fertilization are several aspects of these concerns.
Date of Report: June 11, 2010
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