A New Direction in Ocean Governance

August 10, 2006

Spatial Perspective

Bren professor Oran R. Young is part of a group whose article in Science calls for a spatial/regional approach to managing marine resources

Oran R. Young

Santa Barbara, Calif. – Bren Professor Oran R. Young joined 15 co-authors to write a paper titled “Resolving Mismatches in U.S. Ocean Governance,” which appeared in the August 4 issue of the journal Science, calling for new approaches to managing marine ecosystems.

“Fisheries are declining, formerly abundant species are now rare, food webs are altered, and coastal ecosystems are polluted and degraded,” said the group, which also included who are part of a working group at the UCSB-based National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, including Marine Sciences Institute (MCI) researcher Gail Osherenko and MCI's PISCO policy coordinator Satie Airame. “Invasive species and diseases are proliferating and the oceans are warming. Because these changes are largely due to failures of governance, reversing them will require new, more effective governance systems.

The current system is highly fragmented, say the authors, stating that in the United States alone, more than 140 federal ocean-related statutes have been passed by Congress and are administered by 20 federal agencies. The authors compare that to a patient who has multiple health problems being treated by 20 doctors who are not communicating well with each other. "The combined treatment can exacerbate rather than solve problems."

“Separate regimes for fisheries, aquaculture, marine mammal conservation, shipping, oil and gas, and mining are designed to resolve conflicts within sectors, but not across sectors,” the authors continue. “Decision-making is often ad hoc, and no one has clear authority to resolve conflicts across sectors or to deal with cumulative effects.”

The authors argue that “marine spatial planning with comprehensive ocean zoning” can help to address the current problems stifling effective management. They write, “Although property rights and management arrangements in the sea differ from those on land, spatial planning could be initiated with cooperation among federal, state, tribal, and local authorities. Zoning would not replace existing fishing regulations or requirements for oil and gas permits, but would add an important spatial dimension by defining areas within which compatible activities could occur.”

The paper describes “spatial and temporal mismatches” that result from the current fragmented approach.

As an example of a spatial mismatch, the authors cite the establishment of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, clearly visible from the Bren School. While California has established “fully protected marine reserves and conservation areas in state waters (extending 0 to 3 nautical miles from land), federal agencies have not implemented the proposed reserves in federal sanctuary waters (3 to 6 nautical miles) because the roles of the two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agencies (Fisheries and National Marine Sanctuaries) are unclear.”

The group also cites temporal mismatches resulting from such phenomena as annual government appropriations and election cycles.

“Annual appropriations and two- or four-year voting cycles drive many policy processes,” they say. “But problems affecting marine systems can occur on time scales that are too fast for these policy rhythms (e.g., sudden collapses of fish populations, outbreaks of invasive species, or harmful algal blooms) or too slow (e.g., increases in ocean temperatures, acidification, or the cumulative loss of wetlands). The white abalone fishery in California expanded and crashed rapidly in the early 1970s, 20 years before the management agency restricted fishing. Longline tuna fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico reduced oceanic whitetip sharks by 99.7 percent over five decades, but the change was so gradual that managers failed to notice or prevent it.

“Marine spatial planning with comprehensive ocean zoning can help address these problems,” say the authors, who cite Belgium, China, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom as countries that have already begun implementing and experimenting with marine spatial planning.

The group acknowledges the difficulties inherent in attempting to develop wide-ranging integrated strategies but conclude, “Our current approach simply cannot address the critical issues in the oceans. Recovering ocean ecosystems will require a better understanding of the consequences of interconnections among ecosystem components, as well as a systemic change in the way we consider issues and make choices regarding ocean use.”