The U.S. has more than 95,000 miles of shoreline, including the Great Lakes, and 53 percent of all Americans now live in coastal counties. That percentage is forecast to reach 63 percent by 2020, further ensuring that "the United States is a coastal nation," according to the National Ocean Council.


Environmentalists have spent years pushing for a cohesive policy to protect all that coastline, and while they haven't gotten one yet, it came a lot closer this week. The White House issued its new National Ocean Policy action plan Thursday, outlining more than 50 actions the U.S. will take to defend the ecological and economic value of its oceans and Great Lakes.


The plan was prompted by a June 2009 memo from President Obama, which sought "to maintain healthy, resilient, and sustainable oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes resources for the benefit of this and future generations."


Major U.S. bodies of water haven't fared very well in recent years, from dead zones and oil spills to invasive species and overfishing. The U.S. has a long history of dealing individually with specific activities in the ocean — oil drilling, fishing, etc. — or specific disasters — oil spills, invasive species — but it has never taken a broad, proactive approach on a national scale. That's the idea behind this ocean plan, but such a big sea change will take time.


The National Ocean Council will now work with state and Native American groups to develop nine regional planning areas, which will then carry the torch for the next leg of the process. Within three to five years, planners in each of the nine regions will unveil their visions "for the sustainable use and long-term protection of the ocean, our coasts and the Great Lakes."


The new plan is long — 118 pages, with no executive summary — but it does list some overarching priorities that apply to several policy areas. According to a National Science Foundation summary, the plan "focuses on public-private partnerships, promoting efficiency and collaboration across sectors, managing resources with an integrated approach and making available and using the best science and information on ocean health." It emphasizes science-based decisions, providing open access to data, developing sound methods for assessing various resources, and identifying critical habitat for "priority fish species."


The full plan, which you can read here, will be open for public comment until Feb. 27. Meanwhile, here are some reactions from people closely involved with ocean issues:


Nancy Sutley

Chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality

"This action plan will help focus our resources on actions that will enhance the stewardship of coastal and marine resources on which so many communities, small businesses, and American jobs depend." 


Emily Woglom

Director of government affairs at the Ocean Conservancy

"This will be a win for all involved. Input and engagement from all ocean users is vital for both this plan and future implementation of the National Ocean Policy to foster coordination for a healthier ocean."


U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee

"This policy isn't about protecting the ocean; it's about expanding power and government control over Americans' lives. The White House is single-handedly pushing through far-reaching policies that could cause significant job loss and economic damage both offshore and onshore."


U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee

"Right now our oceans and Great Lakes are as active as they are vast, teeming with competition to fish, ship goods, train our Naval forces, harness wind energy, and conserve vital species and recreation locations. This plan will strengthen regional efforts to promote efficiency and collaboration in sharing these resources."


Frances Beinecke

Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council

"By streamlining the way existing agencies work, it will reduce government waste, inefficiency and delay. Under the National Oceans Policy, all the government agencies that play a role in ocean-related work — from fishing to shipping to offshore energy and coastal development — will coordinate their efforts, saving time and taxpayer money."


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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Coast protocol: U.S. unveils new ocean plan
The U.S. has issued its first-ever comprehensive plan for ocean management, but such a major sea change won't happen overnight.