• By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: David Skok

conservation /// ted williams

Whatever are we to make of the “National Ocean Policy” process hatched by President Obama three years ago and finalized April 16, 2013?

Can anglers really trust a golfer from Chicago to lead on issues like marine fisheries management, especially after Congress has repeatedly refused to do legislatively what he has directed as commander-in-chief? Well, you get different answers from different sources. But first, some background.

It all started under old-school Republican leadership. The Oceans Act of 2000 established the US Commission on Ocean Policy, manned by genuine conservatives who believed in conserving resources—people like Bill Ruckelshaus, who ran the nascent Environmental Protection Agency for Richard Nixon, and returned to run the mature agency for Ronald Reagan.

On July 22, 2004 the commission sent 212 recommendations for intelligent, coordinated ocean management to President George W. Bush and Congress, entreating them to take “immediate action” to restore our declining marine and coastal resources. Mr. Bush, an angler and ocean advocate, promptly responded by releasing an “Ocean Action Plan,” and he issued an executive order that set up a Committee on Ocean Policy within the Council on Environmental Quality.

But bills to establish the National Ocean Policy were shouted down by the 109th, 110th and 111th Congress. This is because members of that august body tend not to offend their sugar daddies—i.e, the rich, powerful special interests engaged in resource extraction. These include members of the deceptively named National Ocean Policy Coalition, 36 of the worst terrestrial and marine pillagers and their supporters, such as the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Exxon, the National Association of Home Builders, United Catcher Boats and the US Oil and Gas Association.

No way was Congress going to enact a National Ocean Policy, so Obama did it by executive order on July 19, 2010. This wasn’t a vote getter, because the decline of marine life is way down on the worry list of most Americans. It was politically risky because it outraged resource exploiters and their lawmaker beneficiaries who, correctly I suppose, characterize the order as an “end run around Congress.” And it couldn’t have come at a worse time because the nation was in financial meltdown. But President Obama, yet to be re-elected, thought it the right thing to do.

Here’s what the National Ocean Policy can’t and won’t do: add even one new regulation.

Here’s what it can and will do: untangle and coordinate a morass of 100 existing laws and executive orders, as well as the authorities of 27 federal management agencies that rarely communicate and frequently pull in opposite directions. The Northeast Regional Planning Body is the first of nine such boards to be formed around the country. It is doing great work. Voting on the nine boards will be: federal regulators (already regulating federal waters), state regulators (already regulating state waters), tribal regulators (already regulating tribal waters), and the citizen-staffed regional fishery management councils (already making management recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service).

For the first time the feds, states, tribes and fishery management councils will be hearing directly from stakeholders who will be at the table with them. Under the old system a proposal for, say, an offshore wind farm went before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which doesn’t know a bass from a wrasse and would find some windy area (perhaps on everyone’s favorite fishing spot), publish a notice in the Federal Register, peruse hurried public commentary, then greenlight the project. Now the bureau will consider more than wind because it will be hearing from interests like birders, boaters, commercial fishermen, whale-watch captains and recreational fishermen.


Coordinated resource planning is not something you’d expect to generate passionate opposition from sources other than extractive industries. But that’s what it has done. On March 9, 2010 ESPN Outdoors reported that Obama’s National Ocean Policy was basically the work of scheming environmentalists and “could prohibit US citizens from fishing some of the nation’s oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes and even inland waters.” Despite the fact that not a word was true the piece went “Ebola viral,” to borrow the words of Field & Stream reporter Chad Love. The same day Rush Limbaugh proclaimed that, “Fishing is on the verge of becoming a privilege controlled by Barack Obama” and that he knew people “in shock after hearing they can’t go fishing anymore because of Obama.”

Then it was Glenn Beck over at Fox News, railing against the fictional fishing ban. “A new report out today says it’s a move to appease the environmental groups,” he declared, his voice rising like that of a pileated woodpecker. “And just like before, without your consent, done in darkness by executive order. I told you a year ago this would happen . . . . The New York Times said this man would do this [The New York Times had said nothing of the sort]. No more fishing. Really? Yeah, apparently some environmentalists want to save the fish. Forget about the frickin’ fish. People are losing their rights. Who’s more important, the fish or you?”

Limbaugh and Beck eschew retractions; but at least ESPN offered a lame one, stating that the piece should have been labeled “opinion,” as if it were OK for editorial writers to spew BS.

Months and years after the fishing ban allegation had been thoroughly debunked in mainstream media and the hook-and-bullet press, the invective flowed—in fact, intensified. Jim Donofrio, director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), warned that the ocean policy “could summarily dismiss all input from stakeholders” and scolded Obama for appearing “to be infatuated with nonsense and bureaucracy” and “signing his name to decrees as if he were a king.” Outdoor radio show host and blogger Tom Remington complained that “the administration continues to refuse to tell Congress what programs they are cutting to provide the money to fund this new bureaucracy.” Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government, called Obama’s National Ocean Policy the “ultimate thug government mentality.” Radio host Alex Jones entitled his piece “Globalist Pirates Take Over the Seas” and accused the president of “taking over our lives while completely looting the nation.” In the online magazine Human Events Audrey Hudson claimed that the president had taken “command of the oceans . . . in a move described by lawmakers as the ultimate power grab to zone the seas.” Aaron Klein, “investigative reporter” for WND—America’s Independent News Network, claimed to have learned that the National Ocean Policy “includes an unreported effort to cede US oceans to United Nations-based international law.”

The row quickly moved to Congress. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) condemned the National Ocean Policy as “pure administrative fiat.” Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) likened it to “air traffic control helping coordinate an air invasion on our freedoms.” Rep. Don Young (R-AK) called it a “red-taped monstrosity.” Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, asked the House Committee on Appropriations “to specifically prohibit the use of funds for the implementation of the National Ocean Policy.” A similar request was signed by 81 industry groups, commercial fishing outfits and commercial fishing fronts including the RFA, Freezer Longline Coalition, Virginia Charter Boat Association, Fertilizer Institute, Resource Development Council for Alaska, New York Sportfishing Federation, Independent Petroleum Association of America, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Forest and Paper Association, Alaska Miners Association and, of course, the National Ocean Policy Coalition.

Complaining about imaginary constraints of the National Ocean Policy before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs in March 2012 was Robert Zales, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators. “How does this process include stakeholders such as recreational and commercial fishermen who may be affected the most?” he demanded, unaware that for the first time ever they would have a place at the table with agencies that had always done the regulating and would continue to do so. “Why do we need another bureaucratic entity costing taxpayers millions of dollars on top of all of these to provide more management? Recreational and commercial fishermen are currently over regulated and negatively impacted in every arena . . . . The fishing industry (recreational and commercial) cannot absorb any more regulatory burden.” But planning and avoidance of redundant actions saves taxpayer money; and there will not be, indeed cannot be, additional regulation.

There were voices of reason as well, most notably from gifted outdoor writers and angler-conservationists Terry Gibson and Capt. John McMurray. Here’s some of Gibson’s testimony: “The National Ocean Policy addresses problems that have been raised for years by experts in science and policy and people like me who have been hurt by the impacts of a tangled web of bureaucracy. The current system is a labyrinth of jurisdictional boundaries, where legal challenges are often the only tool to settle conflicts between user groups. Our nation needs to reform ocean management and create a coordinated, regional system that breaks down silos between different agencies . . . . [The National Ocean Policy] will finally place the management decisions closer to those who are impacted. It will finally create an integrated, multi-sector, regionally based ocean management system and a forum where all stakeholders can be heard. And despite the claims of others on this panel here today, it will finally protect fishermen.”

McMurray, who in addition to his conservation activism and outdoor writing is a popular light-tackle guide for tuna, stripers and albies, offered this in the April 24, 2012 issue of the Hill’s Congress Blog: “In recent weeks, Republicans in Congress have once again taken aim at a comprehensive ocean management and protection plan. In misleading hearings and op-eds their talking points mirror rumors that have long been exposed as false—that the National Ocean Policy is somehow a direct assault on fishing. Frankly, such an assertion is ridiculous . . . . It will actually streamline the process, reduce bureaucratic red tape and perhaps more importantly, enlist local stakeholders in the decision-making process . . . . While ocean-use conflicts between industries like fishing and energy development continue to increase, the National Ocean Policy will help us manage these conflicts by planning ahead to help keep, for example, energy plants off prime fishing grounds and unique habitat, so that all sectors can coexist . . . . Any attempts to defund or delay implementation of the National Ocean Policy are a dangerous political move that puts the health of our oceans, coastal communities, jobs and fishing industry at risk.”

Republicans had an election on their minds, so Gibson’s and McMurray’s valiant efforts failed. In May 2012 the House amended the Departments of Commerce and Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill to halt funding for Obama’s National Ocean Policy. This was merely a political statement because the amendment wouldn’t have a chance in the Senate.


There is, alas, a large element of the outdoor community that makes its living by whipping gullible anglers and hunters into froths of paranoia. That element sets up make-believe enemies, crusades against them, then collects money for the war effort.

“My colleagues have been disheartened by some of the stuff out there,” says Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group, and an avid angler with whom I fish. “The black helicopters, one-world order. It’s remarkable that this stuff has as much currency as it does.”

But there are decent, rational outfits worried about the National Ocean Policy, such as the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), the Billfish Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA). Their concerns are genuine and understandable, though groundless.

Whenever the subject of the National Ocean Policy comes up they start talking about marine protected areas (MPAs). That’s a non sequitur. MPAs have traditionally been part of ocean planning and will continue to be. The reason some MPAs have been ineffective and politically disastrous is that they were plunked where they don’t belong and don’t do any good because recreational anglers have been denied the input they’ll get under the National Ocean Policy. With such input MPAs can be and have been effective (as when they protect, say, spawning reefs from angling, or bottom habitat from otter trawls that “clearcut” the seabed, razing coral, sea fans and all structure that sustains juvenile fish and forage of adults). The rule establishing Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an MPA off Massachusetts, even contains language prohibiting the restriction of sportfishing.

Commenting on Obama’s Draft National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan the ASA, CCA, Center for Coastal Conservation, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, International Game Fish Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association and The Billfish Foundation bring up the MPAs designated under California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA): “While the MLPA was conducted for the specific purpose of closing areas to fishing, as compared to Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) for all ocean uses, our concern that CMSP will follow a similar track of unnecessarily closing areas . . . . Perhaps at the root of the problems with the MLPA was that the process was funded almost entirely through a public-private partnership by organizations that support closures.”

Right; but the National Ocean Policy ensures that MPAs will not be funded or designated by organizations that support closures because all stakeholders will be at the table.

Almost without exception officials of the decent, rational organizations express worry about what they call “a top-down management approach,” opining that regional, local and up is more effective. But the big strength of the National Ocean Policy is that it is bottom up.

“I think a lot of the conflict is about misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the purpose,” says Anna Zivian of the Ocean Conservancy. “It’s not top-down. It’s a regionally based process that invites stakeholders and states to the table. Right now recreational fishermen can get left out of planning. The policy reduces conflict. It’s about making smart choices for a healthy ocean. It’s science based and brings everyone’s information to the table. People making decisions for coasts and oceans should be fully informed. Right now the process is haphazard and chaotic. There wasn’t any real way for, say, recreational fishermen to get involved.”


Since the finalization of the National Ocean Policy, the irrational element has remained at full cry. But, save for ASA, the decent, rational groups haven’t uttered a peep. “In this plan, we see stronger acknowledgment of the importance of public access for fishing and boating and the role state agencies can play in planning,” says ASA president Mike Nussman. “That’s good. Recreational anglers and the sportfishing industry still want to see specific language that will prevent unwarranted loss of public access in any kind of new marine resource planning exercises.”

If groups like the ASA and CCA have sounded a little paranoid, there’s good reason for it, and it’s not because they were manipulated by the RFA and its ilk. The environmental community, for the most part supremely ignorant of recreational angling and displaying scant interest in learning about it, has been imbecilic in its promotion of MPAs.

For instance, back in 2002, when I asked an Ocean Conservancy official if fishing would be allowed in the enormous California MPAs being recommended for what his organization called “ocean wilderness,” he told me that it would not be.

“Not even catch-and-release?” I inquired.

“No,” he said. “You can dive it; you can surf it; but there’s no catch-and-release fishing. You can’t do that with native fish in national parks or wilderness areas.” That, of course, was incorrect, and it undercut those of us who had been working to convince the hook-and-bullet crowd that terrestrial wilderness wasn’t an anti-blood-sport plot and that it improved rather than restricted hunting and fishing. The conservancy is doing better these days, and it has wisely deep-sixed its “Ocean Wilderness Challenge.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), on the other hand, appears uneducable. While it does lots of great stuff, even today it is wrongly defining wilderness and parks, as in: “We started creating parks and wilderness on land more than a century ago; it’s time to do the same for the ocean. Studies show that marine protected areas have bigger fish, greater diversity of life and higher productivity than similar areas that are open to fishing,” as if parks and wilderness were not.

And you may recall NRDC’s 2010 “Shame on Shimano” campaign. Shimano, which makes high-quality fishing gear and bicycle parts, fell in with the ASA in its well-taken critique of MPA designations off California. So NRDC tried to push Shimano out of the political process with a nasty, duplicitous smear campaign, claiming Shimano was making “War On the California Coast” and telling the public to boycott bikes made with company parts because doing otherwise would “unknowingly boost Shimano’s profits that, in turn, feed anti-ocean protection efforts.”

“Shame on Shimano? Hardly. Shame on anyone associated with that misguided, irresponsible and needlessly destructive campaign,” wrote Doug Olander, the editor of Sport Fishing Magazine.

“Environmentalists don’t reach out to sportsmen,” says Chris Potholm, a professor of government and legal studies at Maine’s Bowdoin College. “If they did, they’d be invincible. Whenever sportsmen combine with environmentalists, you have 60 to 70 percent of the population, an absolutely irresistible coalition.”

Such coalitions are needed if we hope to reverse the decline of marine life. What’s more, they’re profitable. A study published in the March 5, 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which the researchers used a model of Massachusetts Bay, shows that designing offshore wind farms under the National Ocean Policy would prevent at least $1 million in losses to the local fishery and whale-watching industries, generate at least $10 billion in extra value to the wind industry and limit damage to the marine ecosystem.

Maybe Boston University biology professor Dr. Les Kaufman, who participated in that study, said it best in his recent statement to The Washington Post: “The whole concept of the National Ocean Policy is to maximize the benefit and minimize the damage. What’s not to love?”


Read the National Ocean Policy at:


Ted Williams is one of the nation’s most respected environmental writers, and has been writing Fly Rod & Reel’s Conservation column for more than 25 years.