Obama's ocean policy task force comes to Alaska

Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Members of President Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force have a huge job before them: They must come up with a national policy for managing the country's oceans, coasts and Great Lakes.

Task force members were in Anchorage on Friday to explain their mission to the public, hear their concerns and answer questions. Prior to the public hearing - the first for the task force - they spent much of the week visiting Alaska villages where climate change is being blamed for severe coastal erosion that already has washed some buildings into the sea.

The task force's mission is to form a national policy, establish a framework and come up with a strategy for implementing that policy.

According to a White House memorandum, the national policy "should ensure the protection, maintenance and restoration" of oceans, coastal areas and the Great Lakes ecosystems. It also should enhance the sustainability of oceans and coastal economies while enhancing the ability to respond to climate change. And it must be coordinated with national security and foreign policy interests.

Nancy Sutley, the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, said the task force brings together two dozen senior policy members from numerous agencies. It will take up issues ranging from oil and gas development to recreational fishing to tribes and subsistence, she said.

Task force member Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said it's one thing to read about global warming and climate change and another to see the effects firsthand. She described the coastal erosion near Barrow as "dramatic."

Lubchenco said while traveling Alaska this week and discussing the decline in seasonal sea ice and other changes in the marine ecosystem, she heard a common refrain.

"Many are anticipating a new Arctic gold rush eventually involving fishing, energy development, shipping and tourism," she said.

While the changing Arctic environment may well open up new opportunities for use, the challenge is to learn from the mistakes of the past and use the ocean's resources wisely, she said.

She pointed to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke's approval Thursday of the Arctic Fishery Management Plan as an example of a good way to proceed. The plan prohibits an expansion of commercial fishing in the Arctic until more is known about the area.

"This is not to say we can't use the ocean. We need to be able to use it, just not use it up," Lubchenco said.

Caroline Cannon, president of the Native Village of Point Hope, said she was eager to bring her concerns to the task force. For too long, the only voice that was heard was from the offshore oil and gas drillers, she said.

Too little concern has been given to climate change and the melting sea ice and how that is affecting polar bears and walrus in the Arctic, she said.

The task force could change that, Cannon said.

"Now, they hear the tribal perspective, our voice," she said.

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