by David Helvarg / Blue Notes / November 3, 2010
The November 2 election gave control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party and expanded their base in the Senate. It will also likely expand the partisan rancor of our dysfunctional political system that was mocked by the quarter million folks who turned out for Comedy Central’s Rally to Restore Sanity the weekend before the election.
But there’s nothing funny about the declining state of our public seas from over-exploitation and pollution. While ocean and coastal conservation has historically been a bipartisan issue, many moderate Republican House and Senate members who were once key advocates for marine protection such as Rep. Jim Saxon of New Jersey, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island are now gone. In their place are anti-government zealots who distrust any regulation by land or by sea. On the other side of the aisle some normally progressive democrats like Barney Frank have strongly opposed plans to stop overfishing. He follows the lead of commercial fishermen in his Massachusetts district who don’t use the same science-based approach to their work as fishermen in Alaska and elsewhere.
Oddly, there still may be some modicum of hope among even the most conservative of Republicans. Remember George W. Bush’s Blue Asterisks? While arguably the worst environmental president in history, he also gave us the nation’s first true ocean wilderness parks, starting with Northwest Hawaii’s huge Papahanaumokuakea Marine Monument in 2006 (see Blue Notes #27).
In the 112th Congress expect to see President Obama’s newly established Ocean Council come under attack as another wasteful government bureaucracy. In fact, it is an (sadly unfunded) attempt to coordinate more than two-dozen government bureaucracies (i.e. federal departments and agencies) to reduce conflict and redundancy at the national level while sustainably managing the uses of our publicly owned seas through regional initiatives. The attempt to also incorporate an ocean conservation trust fund into a Senate oil spill response bill—if not passed during the 111th Congress’s lame duck session—will likely die at the hands of those who want to slash government spending even as private sector spending has stalled out.
The new Senate may become even more obdurate when it comes to getting a confirmation vote for the Law of the Sea treaty that has been languishing (at this point more like festering) in that august body for years. While almost all ocean stakeholders from the Pentagon to the shipping industry to Greenpeace think the U.S. needs to be an active player in this U.N. convention that determines global actions on ocean issues, a handful of right-wing senators including James Inhofe, David Vitter and the Tea Party’s Jim DeMint claim it is an attempt to undermine U.S. sovereignty.
Another problem may be how we address fossil-fuel-fired climate change impacts on our public seas such as acidification, loss of Arctic sea ice and sea-level rise when climate change denial has become an ideological, rather than science-based, issue for many Republican office holders. Over half of Tea Party members who have been the drivers of the recent Republican surge believe global warming poses no problem while 85 percent of the public thinks it does, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll. Not coincidentally many of the key groups backing Tea Party candidates such as ‘Americans for Prosperity’ are also funded by the oil industry. Expect Capitol Hill debates over ocean policies and politics to get even more heated in the next few years, not unlike the ocean itself.