Great Decisions 2012 Preview: State of the Seas

The Great Decisions briefing book and television series on PBS take a closer look at the state of the seas. How are depleting fish populations,  coral erosion and  polluted waters impacting the health of the world’s seas? For more in-depth analysis, order the 2012 briefing book and DVD.


Current Situation

The human impact on the state of the seas is increasingly precarious, from the depletion of fish populations to degradation of coral reefs and polluted waters. The ocean reportedly generates around 69 million jobs and $8 trillion in wages annually just in the United States (Conservation International). The 2010 BP oil spill highlighted our ocean dependency, and how easily it can be affected, but the brief, concentrated attention must be extended to address the multitude of issues facing the world’s seas. President Barack Obama introduced the National Policy for Stewardship of Ocean, Coasts and Great Lakes in July 2010, to be a task-force and research body for the country’s first comprehensive national ocean policy. Yet with the spill behind, and billions of dollars worth of federal budget cuts, will this become another under-funded initiative? What is the current state of the seas, and how are U.S. policymakers addressing these challenges? Should the U.S. be more concerned about the future of the world’s ocean?



In 2004, the U.S. “completed” its Commission on Ocean Policy- the council reported 212 recommendations for addressing the current state of the seas, to be carried out by the President and Congress. However, three months later the Commission expired, explained via the terms of the Oceans Act of 2000. Former President George W. Bush did take strides following the report, including the creation of the first National Ocean Research Priorities Plan, and significantly increasing protection in the Western Pacific via “marine national monuments.” Congress also bolstered the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which overseas fisheries management. Yet many key problems remain unaddressed. Crucially, ocean conservation groups chastise Congress for failing to reform the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which currently operates under the Department of Commerce as an under-funded scientific research agency. On the international scale, the U.S. has yet to ratify the Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Amended by the United Nations in 1994, the treaty sets guidelines for the use of the world’s seas, including protection, sovereignty concerns, and mechanisms for settling disputes. Though the U.S. is not a member of the convention, President Obama has supported efforts for accession, like President Bush before him. In the most significant stride towards addressing the current state of the seas, President Obama created the National Ocean Council in July 2010 in response to the BP oil spill, what has become the first comprehensive national ocean policy.



Today, some of the key threats to the world’s oceans revolve around climate change. As the ocean plays a crucial role in regulating climate, addressing shifts in the seas is essential. Most cited is the effect of rising temperatures- glacial melting and rising sea levels contribute to flooding, changes in costal habitats, and intensified costal storms. The world’s declining fisheries also have a tragic ripple effect. Factors such as pollution and overfishing have led to decreased fishing stocks, harming incomes, trade, and marine life. Pollution also gravely affects the quality of water, impacting human and marine health. From contamination via industrial and urban waste to oil and chemical spills, polluted coastal areas have impacted marine employment and tourism industries. The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative notes that increased use of the ocean, such as for energy production and aquaculture, has led to conflicting policies regarding ocean protection. As they argued in their 2009 policy paper to Congress and the President: “Many of the serious challenges we face in maintaining the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and economies stem from a fundamental mismatch between the way natural systems work and the way we manage the activities that affect them.” With many industries and agencies dependent on the ocean, streamlining responses to environmental and man-made threats is perhaps the greatest challenge.



President Obama’s new initiative towards addressing the state of the seas is seen by ocean conservation groups as an important national development. The creation of a National Ocean Council will streamline responses and ocean management, rather than the former system of decentralized agencies, divided by sector. The Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force made suggestions to improve coordination between federal, state, and regional agencies to protect the oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes; it is to address issues such as the impacts of climate change, drilling regulation, pollution, and the controversial suggestion for costal and marine spatial planning. (Yet given increasing budget cuts and protests against government regulation in fishing industries, some do fear for the future and effectiveness of these initiatives.) The President also declared July 2011 “National Ocean Month,” highlighting efforts to inform the public on the state of the seas. Many hope this new momentum in addressing ocean policy will lead to innovative responses to aid the world’s greatest resource.


Key Questions

  • What are the most important current issues effecting the state of the seas?
  • What policy challenges exist to responses- sovereignty issues, business lobbies, etc.?
  • What has President Obama done to address the state of the seas following the BP oil spill? Do these initiatives have the potential to make a lasting difference?
  • What is the connection between ocean policies and climate change?
  • What can the U.S. do to address the greatest threats to our oceans?

This Great Decisions 2012 Brief was written by Sarah Marion Shore

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