From Hope to Action: Making Healthy Oceans Everyone’s Business 

January 20, 2011

“From Hope to Action: Making Healthy Oceans Everyone’s Business”
Keynote Address

The Honorable Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D.
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere &
NOAA Administrator

National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment -
2011 Our Changing Oceans
National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE)

Thursday, January 20, 2011, 8:45-9:15 AM, Ronald Reagan Building
As Delivered

Thank you, Margaret Leinen for that introduction.

On behalf of President Obama, Secretary Gary Locke and the 12,800 employees of NOAA, it is my pleasure to be with you today. Thank you, NCSE and Peter for this opportunity. I salute NCSE’s key role in championing the need to improve the scientific basis for environmental decision-making for 20 years now. Well done! And NCSE’s focus on oceans is timely.

We are gathered here at a critical time for oceans. Make no mistake: Oceans are changing. They are changing rapidly and radically, with profound consequences for humanity. Hope remains but time is running out. Now is the time for engagement if we wish to redirect the global trajectory and transition to sustainable uses and to healthy oceans and coasts.

Many of you here today have worked tirelessly to understand and communicate the value and vulnerability of oceans, to advance a new ocean ethic, and to craft solutions. I applaud your efforts. And now I invite your assistance in having ocean awareness and action go viral.

I am inspired by the very significant progress that has been made in the last decade. The actions of numerous scientists, fishermen, non-governmental organizations, journalists, coastal residents, business leaders, government agencies, chefs, and individual citizens are changing awareness and action and reversing downward trajectories.

New science is driving new solutions, and a plethora of alternative approaches. Communities and stakeholders are becoming engaged; creativity is enhancing progress.

A little over a decade ago, the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy were just getting underway. In parallel voyages of discovery, Commissioners from both groups learned from scientists, leaders and citizens about problems, causes and possible solutions.

Both Commissions concluded that a hidden crisis was well underway. Both recognized that, contrary to public perceptions and policy frameworks, oceans are neither infinitely bountiful nor infinitely resilient. While oceans are indeed resilient, they are also fragile, vulnerable to human impacts, and often characterized by tipping points. And, the Commissions concluded, despite many good efforts, the global picture is one of depletion, degradation and loss of resilience.

One Commission identified the root causes as a dual failure: a failure of understanding and a failure of governance. Both Commissions recommended steps to address these two failures.

In my time today, I wish to focus on the substantial progress we’ve made in addressing both failures – of understanding, and of governance – and the daunting task that still lies ahead.

The failure of understanding is both personal and collective. Individuals become aware, share new knowledge and pool ideas and resources until a critical mass is reached to trigger collective action. Like biological and physical systems, social systems are non-linear. History is rife with examples of tipping points in public attitudes: witness civil rights, drunk driving, or smoking.

Each of you has your own story of becoming aware of the need for changes in how we think about and use oceans. Some individuals have shared their stories publically. Take, for instance, Dan Barber, Executive Chef of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City, and a champion of sustainable seafood. Last year, Dan delivered a compelling TED lecture that described his own personal voyage to find sustainable seafood.

My awareness emerged from seeing my study sites change right under my nose.

I had pursued a career in ecology because I loved the fun of solving mysteries and figuring out how the world works: observing patterns in the natural world, asking questions, posing hypotheses, and devising experiments. I delighted in the process of scientific discovery and awakening and fueling curiosity in my students.

For many years, I was fully immersed in teaching and satisfying my scientific curiosity, using rocky seashores as a model system to understand the basic workings of ecosystems, and gaining insights into patterns and processes in space and time.

Along the way, however, I watched the ocean ecosystems I studied change dramatically. The spectacular, diverse, colorful coral reefs I studied in Jamaica were transformed into weedy algal wastelands due to overfishing and nutrient runoff from the land.

One rich fishery after another crashed precipitously, with consequences to the ecosystem as well as the fishermen and their families and communities.

The once healthy, productive coastal ocean off the beautiful Pacific Northwest coast became a seasonal dead zone each year due to changing patterns of winds and oceanic circulation that are most likely due to climate change.

From the tropics to the poles, disruption and depletion were playing out in alarming ways. The unintended -- but nevertheless very real -- consequences of coastal development, overfishing, nutrient pollution and climate change were taking their toll.

As a result, I began to expand my scientific efforts and work with colleagues to develop solutions:

I also came to realize that oftentimes much of the scientific knowledge I took for granted was not broadly understood by non-scientists. Most citizens, policy-makers, and businesses were not aware of much of the knowledge that was relevant to their decisions.

The breadth of scientific knowledge was not being incorporated into policy and management decisions.

And so I began working with others to:

My journey from awareness to action likely mirrors that of many of you. And we have witnessed considerable changes in public awareness of ocean issues as a result of your individual and collective efforts.

But, we have certainly not reached a tipping point. Most Americans remain unaware of what is at stake or how they might contribute to solutions. Despite considerable progress, we are still faced with a failure of understanding. I believe we are making progress toward a tipping point. But … will we get there before it is too late?

I urge you to use this conference to develop ways to accelerate the pace, to bring us to tipping points in awareness and adoption of solutions.

One approach might be to reframe the way we view oceans. When you picture the United States in your mind - what does it look like?

What most people see is this: a political map outlining the boundaries of our lands. We feel a sense of value, ownership, responsibility, and pride over this place. We have come to regard the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the areas where we recreate as “common goods,” part of our public trust.

Let’s take a look at this map through another lens. What if we add the Exclusive Economic Zone? Now the map extends 200 nautical miles from shore. The “new” map adds an area 1.5 times larger than the contiguous 48 United States (an additional 4.5 million square miles) over which we also have responsibility. Shouldn’t we be considering the salty and wet parts of the country as part of our common heritage and part of our common responsibility?

Oceans are a source of valuable food, inspiration, recreation, knowledge, energy, jobs, and protection from storms. And as the Census of Marine Life is illustrating, they harbor amazing and diverse forms of life that we have only just begun to appreciate. And they are the lifeblood of coastal communities.

If nothing else, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was a stark reminder of the dependence of communities, economies and livelihoods on healthy oceans and coasts. As Joni Mitchell reminded us, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ Let us heed these warnings. Let’s use every available tool to vanquish the failure of understanding.

So, how are we doing in addressing the second failure identified by the oceans commissions in 2003 and 2004 — the failure of governance?
The synergy between the two Commissions’ recommendations provided impetus for action, building on other efforts already underway.

The Joint Oceans Commission Initiative, initially led by Admiral Watkins, Leon Panetta, and Bill Ruckelshaus provided champions and a mechanism to promote action. Numerous organizations amplified and developed the messages and new approaches. Congress took action in reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, emphasizing ecosystem-based management and ending overfishing.

NOAA implemented the new rules, mapped essential fish habitat, and developed new methodologies for integrated ecosystem assessments. Academic scientists, fishermen and NGOs provided new analyses and knowledge about sustainable fishing, catch shares and marine reserves. A number of states and communities took up the challenge and began embracing some of the recommendations around marine spatial planning and ecosystem-based management. And neighboring coastal states formed regional alliances to collaborate on ocean efforts.

Progress on multiple fronts provided impetus to create a more systemic and comprehensive framework for effective and integrated federal action. In June of 2009, President Obama established his Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and charged it with making recommendations to ‘enhance national stewardship of the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes and promote the long term conservation and use of these resources’.

Led by Nancy Sutley of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Task Force engaged 24 senior-level policy officials from across the Federal Government and their staff in an intense effort to work with the public and a wide range of stakeholders and respond to the President’s charge. Many of you participated actively in that effort, to the benefit of the results.

And on July 19 2010, the President signed an Executive Order establishing the Nation’s first ever National Ocean Policy. Entitled ‘The National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Coasts and Great Lakes’, the document says clearly that healthy oceans matter.

This Policy is about good governance – governance informed by sound science.

The National Ocean Policy outlines a bold vision for more holistic, ecosystem-based management of our oceans – management that more accurately reflects our scientific understanding of the multiple and interacting impacts of humans on coastal and ocean ecosystems.

In addition, the Policy clearly articulates the interconnected nature of humans and oceans – our communities, economies, and livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems.

A cornerstone of the National Ocean Policy is the critical role of partnerships at all scales. The Federal Government is already working to improve interagency coordination for ocean management. In addition, many of the actions outlined in the Policy will be implemented at the local, state, and regional levels. Collaboration and working across boundaries are necessary for achieving the goal of building ocean resilience. Successful implementation will rely on the actions of you and many others.

The National Ocean Policy has provided us with a critical window of opportunity. The tenets outlined in this document offer a framework for action:

This National Ocean Policy delivers on the need to take governance issues seriously. It is a wonderful accomplishment and everyone in this room who contributed to it should be justly proud.

But equally important is the need to breathe life into the policy – to implement it, to realize its vision.

Doing so will not be easy, but I am hopeful. Those of us who worked hard on it are committed to having it succeed. NOAA has re-aligned many of its working groups to be maximally effective and is developing memorandums of understanding with other agencies to facilitate strong partnerships.

But, it will take all of us and more. Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s call to Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Substituting the word “ocean” for “country” might be appropriate today.

In conclusion, I have described many examples where we are making good progress to address failure of understanding and failure of governance, but we still have a lot of work to do.

While our public understanding of ocean issues has grown, it has not grown quickly enough.

While we have exciting new initiatives to improve ocean governance, we need to work hard to ensure that the actions we take are consistent with the goals articulated in the new National Ocean Policy.
And so I invite you to join together and commit to a quantum leap in our collective efforts -- in our roles as scientists, teachers, public servants, citizens, activists, consumers, and as environmental stewards.

We are all part of the solution for healthy oceans.

I’d like to close with the following thoughts: restoring the health and bounty of our oceans is one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime. What we choose to do now will define us for generations.

The magnitude of the challenges we face today bring to mind the eloquent words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated this week. When writing about another great challenge for our society (the civil rights movement) Dr. King spoke of ‘the fierce urgency of now’. In his book, “Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community,” (1967) Dr. King said:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of humanity’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs.

“We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: 'Too late.'

“There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on...’ We still have a choice today… This may be humankind’s last chance to choose….”

None of us want to be remembered as the generation whose actions were “Too late.”

We must choose the pathways to ensure healthy, productive, resilient oceans in the future -- and we must choose it now.

Let’s do it!


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