After Gulf oil spill, Obama plans better use of oceans

With the end of the BP oil spill in sight, Obama orders federal agencies to zone human uses of coastal seas (and the Great Lakes). It won't be easy but it is essential.

Long after the last oil seeps from the BP spill, the eco-disaster in the Gulf is bound to change the way Americans take responsibility for the oceans. President Obama made a start Monday by ordering 22 agencies with ocean responsibilities to become better stewards of the marine environment.

In particular, he endorsed the idea of zoning the nation’s coastal seas (and Great Lakes) – or the roping off of areas for such diverse uses as sport fishing, oil drilling, shipping, and underwater parks.

This “marine spatial planning” will be done in nine regions but coordinated by a new National Ocean Council. The aim is to minimize often-conflicting demands and improve the eco-systems.

One lesson from the BP spill was that the federal agency overseeing offshore drilling, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), was too focused on helping the industry extract oil and gas while downplaying protection of the environment. This new planning should provide better balance in locating drilling sites and saving vulnerable areas. The idea is already active in three coastal states, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. And Scientific American magazine recently referred to it as one of “20 World Changing Ideas.”

But like zoning for land use, marine spatial planning is controversial. It forces government to restrict commercial or recreational activities based on estimates of sustaining always-changing marine areas. Ocean scientists often differ on the effects of human actions, and the concept of sustainability can sometimes be fuzzy.

At best though, the planning would end the idea of managing oceans one use at a time with little or no integration with other uses. A good example for the need for such planning is the increased plans for offshore wind farms.

Whether the federal government can maintain such planning over time remains to be seen. The initial proposal was amended after complaints from the fishing and ocean recreation lobby. Now the president’s order refers to those activities as “critical” to the nation.

The petroleum industry, despite the BP spill and earlier spills, claims it has a good record of working compatibly with other marine uses. That may be true, but the major damage from the occasional spill should require the industry to help pay for better management of ocean areas. A bill in Congress would dedicate 10 percent of offshore oil revenues to do just that.

Still, care of the oceans is everyone’s responsibility. One of the biggest killers of sea wildlife remains plastic debris, even the smallest particles. Huge swaths of the Atlantic and Pacific have been found to contain millions of floating plastic bits, causing the deaths of birds and marine mammals. And in the Gulf, farm runoff flowing down the Mississippi river creates “dead zones,” similar to the one that the oil spill appears to be creating.

From farm runoff to increased acidity from global warming, the oceans are under threat. The era of single-mindedly pursing one human activity with little thought to the ecological stresses must come to an end. Obama’s order treats the oceans more as a commons, like land and air. Some areas need strict preservation with marine sanctuaries while others can sustain high human use. Figuring all that out may not be easy but it is essential.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial used an incorrect name for the Minerals Management Service.]

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