Forging an Ocean Ethic

            by Peter Borrelli
            Cape Cod Baywatch, 2004

Current events continue to bear out the blunt truth that public policies toward our oceans are at best utilitarian and at worst exploitive. Eventually, just about every pollutant on land makes its way to the sea or falls out of the sky. At sea our problems are generally out of sight and out of mind until one day we are rudely reminded that they are not; by an oil spill, a dead whale, a collapsed fishery, or even by news that deep ocean currents which affect the weather are being disturbed by human induced greenhouse gases.

    It’s an old story, but it is also 2004, not 1904, and if we are smart we won’t have to spend the better part of a century figuring things out, as we did on land. Of course, as a nation we still don’t fully embrace the wisdom of Aldo Leopold, who coined the phrase “land ethic,” and any presidential candidate in 2004 who gets teary eyed about biodiversity is still likely to be among the ranks of the unemployed by summer. There are positive signs, however, that elected officials, resource managers, user groups, and the general public sense that America’s oceans are in crisis. Last year the Pew Oceans Commission called for the most significant changes in national ocean policy since the nation’s first review of ocean policy in 1969 by the Stratton Commission. The fundamental conclusion of the bipartisan, independent study group was that “…this nation needs to ensure healthy, productive, and resilient marine ecosystems for present and future generations. In the long term, economic sustainability depends on ecological sustainability.” To achieve this objective, the commission called for the enactment of a comprehensive National Ocean Policy Act administered by an independent national ocean agency, establishment of regional ocean ecosystem councils to develop and implement enforceable regional ocean governance plans, and creation of a national system of fully protected marine reserves. Later this year the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy is also expected to recommend a reorganization of the federal bureaucracy, renewed commitment to sustainable development, and expansion of oceanographic research.

    Meanwhile, in Massachusetts the Environmental Affairs Secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder has established the Ocean Management Task Force. Its charge is to define the state’s “guiding principles for the use of state waters and ocean resources” and to make recommendations as early as this winter on improved methods of ocean governance. In its first draft the task force echoed the findings of the Pew Commission by declaring that ocean management should “…embody an ethic of ocean stewardship that protects the public trust, values biodiversity, respects the interdependence of ecosystems, fosters sustainable uses, makes use of the best available information and encourages public participation in decision-making.”

    The task force’s major recommendation is that the Commonwealth should enact legislation creating a comprehensive planning process for ocean resources. Whether or not this happens the task force is clearly and strongly calling upon the state to manage ocean resources as public trust uses “for the use and enjoyment of its citizens, now and in the future.”

    Remarkably, the task force’s ocean ethic extends beyond societal needs and includes protection and enhancement of the abundance and diversity of marine life. More specifically, the task force concludes that the state should “…ensure that [existing] environmental agencies have the statutory authority to designate and protect areas that have special, sensitive and/or unique estuarine and marine habitat and life…”

    The clear intent of designating planning areas or use zones [my words] is to develop a management and regulatory regime that ensures compatibility of uses. Just as we try not to put chemical plants next to elementary schools, we should not be locating sewage outfalls near public beaches or dredging fragile fisheries habitats.

    Once the task force issues its final recommendations there will be opportunity for public comment. It will then fall to Secretary Herzfelder to advise on the next course of action. My New Year’s wish is that the governor takes up the challenge and the Bay State becomes a national leader in enlightened ocean governance.