Editor’s note: Joe Uravitch served as director of the US National Marine Protected Areas Center from 2000 to 2011. Now retired, he works part-time as a consultant on coastal and marine resource management issues.

By Joseph A. Uravitch

In 1978 I started work at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This was during the nation’s first “energy crisis”, and I worked on a program that pertained to impacts from the siting of coastal energy facilities. That is where I learned that the state of Louisiana’s wetlands were eroding into the Gulf of Mexico.

On 1 January 2011, I retired from NOAA in the midst of a “new” energy crisis and a “new” public discovery that among other problems facing the nation, Louisiana’s wetlands were eroding into the Gulf.

Given this, what have we accomplished and learned over the past 30 years? For that matter, what have I accomplished and learned? And what does this portend for the future?

Speaking from a US vantage point, the coastal and marine community has made significant progress with institution building, education, and research. With regard to institutions to address our problems in the 1970s, new federal programs such as coastal zone management (CZM), national marine sanctuaries, and national estuarine research reserves were established to provide a more comprehensive suite of tools for action in this environment. Concurrently, new areas of scientific inquiry, formal management disciplines, and the linkages among them began and continue to develop. However, with the exception of the recovery of a few charismatic species and the setting aside of special areas, we have failed to deter continuing species loss and ecosystem degradation, both primary goals.

Coastal zone management

In the 1970s-1980s, the national CZM Program saw cooperative efforts by NOAA and the states and territories – often in consultation with Congressional staff – to develop management programs and an overarching national structure. Together they built the institutions and processes needed to address the use of coastal lands and, to a lesser degree, coastal waters in a comprehensive manner. It was a time of experimentation and innovation as the 35 coastal states and territories served as public administration laboratories. Each experimented with new approaches built upon unique state authorities to address general and specific federal statutory requirements, and shared information and approaches to address common issues. Unfortunately, that cooperative spirit was lost during the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and a broad-based federal-state professional partnership has not been fully re-established, often hampering the sharing of resources, capabilities, and comprehensive approaches to problem solving. While the final state CZM program is now nearing approval, the magnitude and range of today’s problems call for active partnerships across all levels of government, not a go-it-alone approach.

Marine protected areas

The foci of marine protected area programs have evolved over time. For example, in its early years the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS), then the Estuarine Sanctuary Program, focused on protecting estuarine resources through land acquisition. Today’s NERRS is more actively providing environmental education, research, long-term monitoring, and training. The National Marine Sanctuary Program also has evolved, adapting to a broader understanding of stressors and threats. The program’s initial focus was on smaller special areas such as Key Largo in Florida and the wreck of the USS Monitor. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the program driven by significant public pressure to use larger sanctuaries with broad prohibitive regulations to preclude perceived large-scale threats: i.e., oil and gas drilling, and conflicting uses of the sea and seafloor such as sewage outfalls, dredged material disposal, and sand and gravel mining. Sanctuaries today are increasing the use of more specialized and targeted regulatory and non-regulatory approaches, retrofitting existing sites through a public management plan update process. Area-based fisheries management continues to move to a broader, habitat-focused approach, and during the past decade the country’s National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges began strengthening the conservation of their non-terrestrial resources.

No doubt we have made progress. But looking back, I have mixed emotions about how much has been accomplished. Certainly we have “saved” some places, reduced the rate of loss and destruction, and established capabilities to address issues. Personally, I wish we had done more. Land can always be redeveloped; but, as time has shown, the restoration of fully functioning coastal, wetland, and marine habitats is not so simple, or even possible. Locations that could support coastal-dependent uses are being converted to other purposes.

However, no one ever said that management was a short, simple process. I remain cautiously optimistic for the long term. We know more now about how the world works. We have established functioning institutions. The MPA executive order, issued by President Bill Clinton in 2000, has established a mechanism to network action and sites across all levels of government. Further, although one can criticize the process, President George W. Bush used his authority to protect large areas of the Pacific Ocean. And President Barack Obama has begun the process of coastal and marine spatial planning, providing a mechanism for marine planning including the “wet side” of coastal management. Our difficult fiscal times require partnerships for success. What we need now is the public, political, and professional understanding, desire, and will to address our common problems.

For more information:

Joe Uravitch, Virginia, US. E-mail: jauravitch@verizon.net