Bill & Al's Ocean Adventure
Is the National Ocean Conference a chance to save the seas or just a podium for politically palatable platitudes?
Thursday, June 4, 1998
President Bill Clinton will arrive in Monterey to proclaim his support for oceans on June 12, the day after Vice President Al Gore earnestly listens to testimony from the sea of experts assembled at the Naval Postgraduate School. And Monterey will bask in the national media spotlight as Ocean Capital of the World, at least for a couple days.
These are about the only outcomes of the National Ocean Conference that anyone can predict with any confidence. The focus, the attention--giving a collective thought to the needs of the oceans--is what event organizers and top muckity-mucks say is the conference''s main goal.
But the environmentalists and activists and people whose livelihood is the sea want more than a photo op set against the beautiful Monterey Bay, or the coup of landing a national conference in their backyard, or front page spreads in the weekend newspapers.
"I don''t think anything is going to happen," says Mike Stiller, an area fisherman and director of the Santa Cruz Fishermen''s Marketing Association. "It''s more of a media event."
These folks want substantive policy changes and more money, a renewed commitment to research and more money, better inventories of ocean resources and more money, innovative approaches to achieving ocean sustainability and more money. And they acknowledge privately that they don''t expect that to happen.
"This conference is coming into this area like a tornado, and after the winds die down, we want to make sure there is something left," says Rachel Saunders of the Center for Marine Conservation. "We want the conference to be more than smoke and mirrors or a beautiful backdrop for a press event."
Yet this conference--like so many that grab the public''s attention--is a press event and a political event. The experts are being assembled not so much to come up with solutions as to highlight a set of problems and needs, to which time and resources must be devoted if solutions are ultimately to be found.
"This is not a science conference," says Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, who was influential in locating the conference in Monterey. "This is a political conference, in the sense of the politics of the ocean."
As such, scientists and activists warn not to expect the conference to produce any great insights, breakthrough scientific initiatives, dedications of more funding, or newfound consensus on contentious issues. Nonetheless, to Farr, the conference has intrinsic value far beyond anything it might produce.
"Just the happening is a wish come true, which is most of the effort. When the conference is over, you start a new effort," Farr says. "We expect there is going to be national recognition that the ocean agenda is important, but to move it from Monterey to the (nation''s) capital is going to be more difficult."
In the flurry of pre-conference activity, various area ocean-interest groups banded together, hoping their collective voice would speak loud enough to be heard in Washington DC.
Farr--who saw the opportunity to inject himself into a high-profile role--culled Monterey Bay conservationists, researchers, activists, politicos, fishermen, and other interested parties into the Monterey Bay Ocean Consortium, which developed a "Living Oceans Agenda" that they want addressed at the conference.
Research groups also formed their own umbrella advocacy group--Monterey Bay Crescent Ocean Research Consortium--to consolidate their resources into the task of seeking more resources.
The nation''s environmentalist heavy hitters--Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Marine Conservation and many others--formed the Pacific Ocean Conservation Network to push their 10-point tome called "Agenda for the Oceans."
And on and on and on. Individuals, groups, and groups of groups have sent their pleas and demands to the White House, which sent them to its Council on Environmental Quality, which forwarded them to the conference organizers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where they ended up on the desk of Fred Klein.
Klein, a chief scientist at NOAA charged with developing the conference agenda, said information from interest groups is one of many factors that have gone into formulating the agenda.
"We have designed the conference around that information and the information developed in our own discussion groups and documents from the International Year of the Ocean (declared by the United Nations)," Klein says.
Yet the agenda has changed little from its earliest versions, developed before the "Agenda for the Oceans" was even complete. It is a simple agenda revolving around four realms to be discussed by panelists and invited guests on the morning of June 11: commerce; global security; environment and health; and exploration, education and research.
Each of the four groups will be guided by a professional facilitator, who will try to steer the debates toward common issues and themes--dubbed "cross-cutting issues" by Klein. The five cross-cutting issues are ecosystem health, sustainable use of resources, research, law of the sea, and ocean management.
"They will have to gear their discussion along some cross-cutting issues, and those cross-cutting issues will be discussed in the afternoon with the vice president," says Klein.
Clinton will not take part in any of the substantive discussions on June 11, but will show up on June 12 to give a speech on the oceans and outcomes of the conference. That appearance is what Klein says will focus the nation''s attention on the oceans.
"The photo op is important, because it''s going to focus the awareness and attention," Klein says. "That is an important part of the conference."
Farr said Clinton''s appearance will be a high point of the conference.
"You have a moment when the world is focused on where the president is," Farr says. "That is the moment of attention and the spotlight."
Although the "photo op" label is applied with a bit of a sneer by those who want the National Ocean Conference to be a catalyst for real change in ocean policy and funding, they also realize that photo ops can help accomplish those goals. They hope the attention and publicity from the conference puts ocean policy on the national agenda, and puts pressure on lawmakers and President Clinton to devote more resources to addressing ocean needs.
"We want to raise the stakes so they are compelled to act," says Saunders. "Our intention was to urge the president to make decisive commitments for the restoration and protection of the oceans."
Organizers and interested groups are doing what they can to ensure the national media provides that pressure. A press kit distributed nationally by the Monterey Bay Ocean Consortium has 124 story ideas related to the ocean work being done by its many member organizations. NOAA is also doing its best to get the biggest media bang for the buck, facilitating media coverage of all parts of the conference.
"I would certainly hope that we make everybody''s front pages," says NOAA spokeswoman Lori Arguelles.
Farr and others hope the conference will create a political climate that will win passage of his Oceans Act, which establishes a federal Commission on Ocean Policy to regularly review US ocean policy and needs, and to make recommendations to Congress and the White House. The $6 million measure has cleared the US Senate and is working its way through the House.
Environmental and ocean groups want Clinton to start talking about the oceans and advocating for their needs. And come January, they would like to see his budget reflect a renewed commitment to the ocean, and for ocean issues to be included in his agenda-setting State of the Union speech.
Those seeking changes in ocean policy speak in terms of a "historic moment," because it is these moments that swing history, the moments of clarity and insight, when great leaders recognize a problem and act boldly to address it.
"We''re trying to create a moment to urge the administration to take the opportunity to leave behind a legacy of protection of the oceans," Saunders says.
Klein said the conference discussions will be recorded, and the information and ideas conveyed by conference attendees will be developed into a document that he expects will be released in about three months. That document will be used as a starting point for the work of the Commission on Ocean Policy, if Congress authorizes its formation.
"People will use this to decide where ocean policy will go," he says.
But many environmentalists, fishermen, scientists, and ocean users have low expectations of the conference, largely for the same reasons that will make it such a "historic moment" and great sound bite.
Beyond the Happy Spin
Just the working title of the conference, "Oceans of Commerce, Oceans of Life," make invited guests from the environmental community, like Vicki Nichols of Save Our Shores, see problems with how the conference is being focused.
"We were trying to propose a different theme. We''re not happy having ''commerce'' be the premier emphasis," says Nichols. "We were hoping the environment would be the framework, and that isn''t what happened."
And, since the conference is being sponsored by the Departments of Commerce and Defense, some environmentalists see their needs and issues being downplayed at the time and place where they should be highlighted. Indeed, commerce and security are fully half the agenda, each given their own breakout sessions, while ocean exploration, education and research are lumped together into one.
"We could have a full conference on each of those topics," Saunders says.
Which gets to another of the conference''s sound bite strengths and substance weaknesses: from a content perspective, the two-day conference is just too darn short to cover a topic as vast as the world''s oceans. Three hours of detailed discussions among hundreds of expert invitees on the morning of June 11 will be followed by three hours discussing the so-called cross-cutting issues in the afternoon. On June 12, there will be a few hours of general ocean policy discussions, Clinton''s speech, and then the meat of the conference is over.
"It''s not a lengthy conference and there''s not a lot of time to solve these issues," says Noreen Parks of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which is also a member of the newly formed Monterey Bay Crescent Ocean Research Consortium.
There''s also some basic cynicism, a feeling that this conference--like most high profile government confabs--is simply a means of feeling like we''re accomplishing something productive without effecting real change.
"I don''t think strong actions are ever the result of conferences like this," says Steve Webster, who chairs the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
For example, Webster pointed out that last year was the UN-declared Year of the Coral Reef. Conferences were held, needs were identified, and the results so far have been nil.
"If you look at that as an example, maybe our expectations should be tentative," he says.
Even this moment of focusing on the ocean--oft labeled historic by conference organizers--is largely an artificial one, not brought on by any pressing environmental crisis like global warming or economic danger like a collapsing industry or some new security threat off our shores.
Rather, it is simply an anniversary, the 500th anniversary of the historic oceanic journey of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator who discovered a sea route around Africa, opening up European trade with India.
Portugal in 1993 urged the UN. to declare 1998 the International Year of the Ocean, a distinction it is currently celebrating with its summer-long tourist spectacle Expo ''98 in Lisbon, the official event of our declared ocean year, which some National Ocean Conference invitees plan to attend after leaving here.
Yet for the sake of argument, let''s assume the conference will be productive, real strides are made in bringing different groups together, the environmentalists are pleasantly surprised by the depth of discussion on their issues, and politics are shelved in favor of progress.
There are still some fundamental ocean problems that even the most productive ocean love-fest will be hard-pressed to solve.
The Tough Issues
"You are not going to expect this conference to settle the issue of vessel traffic around the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary," Webster says, citing one of many dilemmas that a couple days worth of expert testimony probably won''t solve.
Pinniped predation--protected pinnipeds like sea lions who are depleting stock of salmon and other fish--is another of those difficult issues on which any action is bound to anger either fishermen or marine preservationists. As a result, nobody expects the conference to do much about the conflict.
Despite the fact that even federal government studies say the pinniped population is too large and should be thinned, few politicians want to start tinkering with the popular Marine Mammal Protection Act, or start putting bullets into cute sea lions.
"I would hope this conference would address this issue more than just verbally," Stiller says, adding that he doesn''t believe it will. "We think there are just too many of them. We manage every other wild species out there."
Over-fishing is another difficult issue that pits commercial and environmental interests against one another. But here, some believe, there is a potential for a solution.
"I think we have a lot of common interests," says Richard Hughett of the Fishermen''s Alliance of California, which has joined with others in the Monterey Bay Ocean Consortium to call for "a clear inventory of the living marine resources and habitats" in the region.
Yet better inventories of ocean fish stocks require more money from the federal government, just like all but a couple items on the Pacific Ocean Conservation Network''s demand list.
"We''re really in the dark," Saunders said. "We don''t have a lot of information we need to see that utilization of marine fisheries is sustainable."
Ocean experts, for the most part, already know what the problems are with current US ocean policy and how they should be addressed. That''s why there are reams of position papers, policy initiatives, and proposed agendas circulating in anticipation of the conference. What they really want is the money to pursue those needs, and that''s something that will be tough for this conference to deliver.
"One of our worst fears is that it''s going to be a shallow event with no real attention given to the need for additional funding for these programs," Nichols says.
"It''s embarrassing how little money the government has put into this sanctuary," Saunders says, noting that the $13 million budget for all marine sanctuaries in the country is less than the budget for some individual national parks.
It''s the bottom line question of the conference: can it deliver cash, not just promises?
"That''s the $64,000 question," says Parks.
Actually, $64,000 is a piddling sum compared to what ocean activists say is needed. They''re thinking millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We know much less about the ocean than we do the dark side of the moon," Parks said in an analogy commonly voiced among consortium members, comparing exploration of the ocean to the comparatively well-funded exploration of space.
What Comes Next?
After a long day on the floor of the House of Representatives, Sam Farr sounds weary, and perhaps a little irritated with a reporter questioning whether the National Ocean Conference would produce any real results.
"This is the World Series of the ocean," Farr says, "and it''s in our backyard."
Clearly, Farr doesn''t mean to imply by his sports metaphor that this is a competition, in which one team will triumph over the other, winning the title of best in the league, at least for a year. He''s talking about the event itself, the gathering, the occasion, a time when the town fills up with big-spending important people, and folks across the country focus their attention on a town and the game.
"I have no doubt that we will be firmly on the map when the conference is over," Parks said.
The fact that the president of the United States and our country''s top ocean experts want to come here and celebrate the ocean, and say wonderful things about the need to preserve its health and vitality, is all well and good.
But when the game ends, and the afterglow of our moment in the spotlight fades, will anyone remember what was said? Will it make a difference to the members of Congress whose Midwest constituents never see the seas? Will it affect a president on his way out, or a vice president who wants to take his place?
Or will it just end, a moment that Klein, the busy conference organizer, admits that he is savoring: "I''ll be happy when it''s over." cw