New National Ocean Policy Gets Two Thumbs Sideways

After years of often-bitter debate, The White House released its final version of the new National Ocean Policy this week. Sportsmen's groups cheered. And jeered. The cup was half empty and full at the same time.

George Cooper, a board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and a consultant who has worked closely with the American Sportfishing Association on this issue, spoke on behalf of the ASA:

"What a lot of us see in this document is as follow-through on commitments Deerin [Deerin Babb-Brott, Director of the National Ocean Council] made to us early on in the process to be more responsive to our community's interests," Cooper said. "We didn't want to be lumped in with the commercial interests, we wanted to be recognized for our contributions through the excise taxes we pay for fisheries management, and we wanted recognition of the proper priority of public access and use of a public resources.

"If you read through this very concise document, you see those things mentioned. So, from our standpoint, it's a start. Do we want to see more progress? Certainly. But this is really a big change from where this was a few years ago, when our issues were not really getting recognized."

The push for a National Ocean Policy is based on recognition that the nation's oceans are being stressed by a growing number of competing and often conflicting uses--from energy production, shipping, recreational and commercial fishing, flood control and even military training.

The idea of forming a national framework to regulate those various uses while still protecting the environmental integrity of the oceans sounded good on paper. But competing users seldom see eye-to-eye, and that quickly became the case for this effort.

Recreational users were particularly concerned about the move to marine protected areas (which are regions of the ocean in which human activity, including fishing, is limited) and experiments with catch shares for regulating harvests--especially since in most areas sound scientific data was missing on the health of some species as well as the economic impact of sportfishing.

Underlying all of those concerns was a worry that management decisions would be taken away from regional councils and states and sequestered in Washington, where commercial fishing and environmental organizations seem to have more political power.

Cooper and others said the final document eased many of those concerns, and that was the result of Babb-Brott making good on his commitment to listen to recreational concerns.

"He didn't just do that at the many very large meetings that were held, but also in follow-up discussions with individuals," Cooper said. "And this document shows he was listening.

"I think it's clear there will be no attempt to wrest regulation from regional councils, or to shut the states out of the process.

"Yes, there's more work to be done, but we know we'll be listened to."

The official response from the American Sportfishing Association, which represents the tackle industry, mirrored Cooper's evaluation. Here is part of the group's carefully worded statement:

"Language in the document referring to 'ecologically important' areas for 'focused protection' in the National Marine Sanctuary system actually points back to the anxiety the original NOP policy documents caused. But language in the document regarding pilot projects, the role of state agencies and other directives mark a move in a more sensible direction."

Translation: We're not happy, but we're also happy.

And there's still a lot of work to be done.