Seas of Trash – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A sampling of the types of plastic trash scattered around the oceans. One of the challenges of plastic debris is that it is continuously breaking down into smaller pieces, leaching toxic chemicals to ocean and making large-scale clean-ups very difficult.

A sampling of the types of plastic trash scattered around the oceans. One of the challenges of plastic debris is that it is continuously breaking down into smaller pieces, leaching toxic chemicals to ocean and making large-scale clean-ups very difficult (Image courtesy of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program).

One of the first questions people ask me when they hear that I’m working with marine debris (“ocean trash”) is What’s up with that giant garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific? The question is understandable, given the evocative name – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – coined for the floating debris congregating in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. Descriptions such as “an island of garbage the size of Texas” convey the idea of a giant conglomeration of plastic bottles, cast-off fishing nets, tennis shoes, food wrappers and other worthless treasures, with a couple of palm trees rooted on top.

The truth is actually (and unfortunately) rather different. Instead of a clump of trash sitting on the ocean surface, easily identifiable and perhaps even scoopable and removable, the trash in the North Pacific often floats slightly below the ocean surface in miniscule pieces that are constantly breaking down into even smaller bits (You may have heard of “nurdles”, the term scientists use to describe the tiny bits of plastic that have broken down from larger plastic sources, or have been released directly from products such as face wash cleansing beads). Although we don’t know the exact extent of plastic in the world’s oceans, the debris doesn’t sit as a separate entity from the surrounding water – it has made its way into the very ecosystem.There’s no “one-scoop-cleans-all” for ocean trash.

This map shows the locations of two “Garbage Patches” in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as an emerging confluence of debris along the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Although ocean debris is described as “an island of trash the size of Texas”, the problem is actually much more dispersed throughout the North Pacific (image courtesy of the NOAA Marine Debris “Garbage Patches” poster)

This map shows the locations of two “Garbage Patches” in the North Pacific Ocean, as well as an emerging confluence of debris along the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Although ocean debris is described as “an island of trash the size of Texas”, the problem is actually much more dispersed throughout the North Pacific (image courtesy of NOAA’s Marine Debris “Garbage Patches” poster)

An additional caveat is that there are actually multiple “Garbage Patches” in the North Pacific. While the congregation in the Eastern North Pacific is probably the most well-known marine debris field to people in the U.S., there are at least two other congregations, one in the Western North Pacific off the coast of Japan, and another along the Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ). The STCZ, a band of the North Pacific at approximately 35ºN latitude, produces high chlorophyll concentrations, making it a popular feeding and migration track for marine life, and increasing the risk of plastic ingestion as animals skim along.

So why should we care about whether plastics are flowing into the oceans? Most people I talk to agree that we can no longer treat our oceans as black-hole dumping grounds that will magically absorb our waste. Among other things, plastics never fully degrade and disappear (that’s the whole point – the material was developed to be light but hardy). As plastics swirl their way into the oceans, fish, birds, turtles and whales ingest them, suffering serious health problems and often death. But in addition to bringing harm to marine life through ingestion, plastic breakdown in the ocean may be leaching dangerous chemicals back into the marine environment, as this recent LA Times article on the “Plastisphere” reports.

Hundreds of feet of abandoned fishing net washed up on the Pacific side of Baja California in July 2007. Abandoned fishing nets are often called “ghost nets” because after they have broken loose from fishing boats, they continue to wander the ocean, trapping and killing marine organisms as unintentional bycatch.

Hundreds of feet of abandoned fishing net washed up on the Pacific side of Baja California in July 2007. Abandoned fishing nets are often called “ghost nets” because after they have broken loose from fishing boats, they continue to wander the ocean, trapping and killing marine organisms as unintentional bycatch.

Cleaning up the oceans is an enormous challenge. Monitoring beaches for trash is an important step, and is an area where I am working to tie in oceanographic data, to help managers determine how water flow may move trash along the shore. The more we can catch debris on the beach (or better yet, before it reaches the beach), the less waste we will have to try to sift out of the oceans later. But all of us who work with marine debris acknowledge that trash monitoring and cleanup isn’t the long-term solution.

In order to reduce debris going into the oceans, we must reduce our single-use consumption in the first place. Non-profit agencies (CA Coastal Conservancy, Heal the Bay and 5 Gyres, to name a few in California) and West Coast state governors are working together and making hopeful strides toward reducing plastic production, starting with the promise of a California state-wide plastic bag ban. It all comes back to on-the-ground actions by consumers, though, especially through reducing plastic use in the first place.

So invest in a safe reusable water bottle, coffee mug and grocery bags, and make a conscious effort to bring them with you wherever you go. Soon you won’t think of leaving the house without them! Support local and state-wide movements to ban plastic bags, and speak up in your local stores about reducing excessive plastic wrapping.

And if you see trash lying around, pick it up. Even if it’s only a temporary solution, it’s a tangible step toward breaking the chain of plastics migrating to the sea.


Thank you to the NOAA Marine Debris Program website for providing excellent information on the North Pacific Garbage Problem. For terrific information on the extent of garbage concentration areas in the North Pacific, see this excellent NOAA Marine Debris information sheet.

A New Porthole to the Oceans

The WCODP aims to be a link of continuity between the numerous "fronds" of oceanographic data collected along the West Coast.

The WCODP aims to link the numerous “fronds” of oceanographic data collected along the West Coast.

As someone working extensively with ocean-related data sets, I’m thrilled to announce the launch of a new West Coast marine data website, the WCGA West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP)! The Portal aims to aggregate the highest-quality West Coast ocean-related data available, to enable researchers, policymakers, coastal managers and community members to more easily find sources and information relevant to their marine data needs.

The front page (above) of the West Coast Ocean Data Portal is designed to provide easy access to various categories of marine-related data.

The front page (above) of the West Coast Ocean Data Portal is designed to provide easy access to various categories of marine-related dataThe WCODP provides a unique level of data access, in that it covers information at a West Coast-wide scale, as well as across a range of data types, human use, and physical and biological oceanography.

The WCODP aggregates marine-related data from several state-based data portals along the West Coast, including the California Coastal Geoportal, which provides comprehensive access to data ranging from public safety and state health to education and natural resources; and the Oregon Coastal Atlas and the Washington State Coastal Atlas, both of which provide various mapped ocean and coastal datasets for their respective states. The WCODP also compiles additional resources from federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, among others. This approach attempts to mirror the extent of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem (CCLME), the physical ocean current and corresponding biology that function offshore along California, Oregon, Washington. The WCODP so far boasts nearly 200 resources covering human use, biological, and physical ocean-related data.

My fellowship work will take advantage of the Portal space as the discovery venue for data inventories that I create or update. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my main fellowship goals is to update the West Coast OOS Ocean Acidification (OA) Assets Inventory to reflect current monitoring assets. As we reframe the OA Assets Inventory to become a real-time assets portal, we hope to use the WCODP site to make it more widely available as a source of OA monitoring information.

The Portal will also soon present a map-viewer feature, in collaboration with data from the WCGA Marine Debris Database. This map-viewer will allow enhanced visualization of marine debris data. One of my other main projects will be to contribute oceanographic data layers (surface currents, winds, wave movements) to this map viewer, and to the Portal in general.

Although the Portal was launched last week, it continues to accumulate sources and expand its categories and issues. If you have an idea of a data source or category that you think should be included in the Portal, feel free to leave a comment on this blog, or to contact the Portal manager, Todd Hallenbeck ( directly. Help us expand this Portal to be the most comprehensive west coast data aggregation possible!

Chasing Waves and Navigating West Coast Ocean Policy

    Greetings from a new face on the team! My name is Laura Lilly and I am thrilled to have been selected as one of the 2013-2014 California Sea Grant Fellows! I recently began a one-year fellowship through the California Sea Grant Program, in which I will be working with the west coast regional Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS) and the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health (WCGA). Throughout my fellowship, I will be blogging about these experiences and our combined progress, as an opportunity to reflect on the work I am doing and the ways in which it may help our marine ecosystems.

Setting my course - I’m ready to dive into my Sea Grant Fellowship work and navigate the seas of west coast marine policy and ocean data integration!

Setting course – I’m ready to dive into my Sea Grant Fellowship work and navigate the seas of west coast marine policy and ocean data integration!

My fellowship entails tying the extensive oceanographic data collected by the three OOS Regional Associations (NANOOS, CeNCOOS and SCCOOS) into globally-relevant issues of marine debris and ocean acidification. Marine debris and ocean acidification are growing problems along the U.S. west coast, as shellfish industries suffer from the effects of increasingly acidic upwelled waters, and more land-based debris washes into the oceans and is scattered by current movements. State, local and nonprofit agencies have been working together to reduce these on-going issues, but they are realizing the importance of better understanding how ocean processes interact with and affect marine debris and ocean acidification.

Tracking the Ocean's Current Movements - Example CORDC HF Radar current tracking data that we plan to analyze for correlations with marine debris movements (Photo courtesy of SCCOOS HF Radar Program).

Tracking the ocean’s current movements – Example CORDC HF Radar current tracking data that we plan to analyze for correlations with marine debris movements (Photo courtesy of SCCOOS HF Radar Program).

The OOS RAs collect and compile various oceanographic data parameters for their respective regions. These datasets include high-frequency (HF) radar tracks of surface currents, modeled and real-time wind data, and in situ physical and biological measurements collected via moored point stations, cruise tracks and autonomous gliders. I am working with west coast marine managers to determine their specific oceanographic needs, and to map and connect these ocean data parameters where relevant.

On the marine debris front, I am working with the WCGA Marine Debris Action Coordination Team to determine available marine debris data, and how oceanographic parameters affect debris movements. I am exploring surface currents data from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Coastal Observing Regional and Development Center (CORDC), and wind data tracked by SCCOOS, CeNCOOS and the Naval Research Laboratory, to determine best options for data tie-ins. We hope to eventually correlate marine debris movements with both oceanographic and freshwater flows, to determine land-based debris sources and to create forecasts of marine debris beach landings. These efforts will allow managers to more effectively plan beach cleanups, and to target and reduce land-based debris sources.

Taking Inventory - West Coast Ocean Observing Systems (OOS) Regional Associations Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory, compiled August 2012. Part of my work aims to update this inventory to include all current west coast OA monitoring assets (inventory available here).

Taking Inventory – West Coast Ocean Observing Systems (OOS) Regional Associations Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory, compiled August 2012. Part of my work aims to update this inventory to include all current west coast OA monitoring assets (inventory available here).

My work with ocean acidification (OA) has involved re-assessing the Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory, first initiated by the California Current Acidification Network (C-CAN) and compiled by the west coast OOS RAs in August 2012. The OA Assets Inventory maps and tracks all west coast OA monitoring methods. While I still don’t know exactly how and where I will be tying oceanographic data into the larger picture of OA monitoring and management, I am beginning to assess the oceanographic data needs of OA managers, so that I can eventually provide them with access to data that will help inform their decisions.

           I am thrilled to begin both of these projects, and look forward to developing further connections with stakeholders within the marine debris, OA and oceanographic communities!

Megabytes, Megawatts, and Megaphones – A Fellows Reflection on CMSP

As the days come to a close on my WCGA Sea Grant fellowship, I am a little teary eyed looking back on two exciting and intense years with the Oregon Governor’s Natural Resource Office and the Oregon Dept. of Land Conservation and Development, Coastal Management Program. It’s been a long strange trip with many curves and bumps in the road, to be sure, but through my ring side seats for Oregon’s marine spatial planning process, I ultimately learned what I came here to learn; the circuitous process by which science and information translates to policy and decision making.


The author enjoying the Monterey Bay aboard the majestic 16′ Hobie Cat “La Pescadita”

I arrived in Oregon fresh out of graduate school at Cal State Monterey Bay, where I studied seafloor mapping and benthic ecology. Working at the scale of grains of sand was really interesting and I learned a lot about how fish and invertebrates use soft sediments, but I wanted to look at a bigger landscape; policy development and ocean planning. I caught glimpses of the mythic world of policy through the California Marine Life Protection Act, but I wanted to experience the whole complicated thing, and the WCGA fellowship seemed to be the perfect way to do it.  

I was really fortunate to arrive in Oregon when I did. They were just beginning a marine spatial planning process for wave energy and were looking for recruits (i.e. fresh blood) to help record and synthesize public comment and help with GIS work. I was stoked! It meant I got to go to every stakeholder meeting on the coast and see how all these competing interests were being addressed. Hearing all their stories helped me realize that, regardless of their background, everyone was coming to the table with a passion to see the ocean protected and healthy (They just wanted to go about it in different ways.) 

A huge part of the marine spatial planning process was the use of decision support tools (DST) to help engage stakeholders and provide accurate spatial data to decision makers. Simply enabling stakeholders to view and analyze data in meetings provided a common foundation that everyone understood. It allowed individuals to investigate prospective areas for development and feel engaged in the process. That’s not to say that everyone agreed with the data or the plan. Oh goodness, no! But seeing the maps and hearing concerns enabled advisory groups and policy makers to refine their information to better reflect realities on the ground. This two way dialogue was critical to the successful adoption of the plan.


Oregon MarineMap: The decision support tool used it the Oregon Territorial Sea Planning process. My, it’s a busy ocean!

Recognizing the utility of these tools, and wanting to apply them at the regional scale, led me to the other big aspect of my fellowship. The creation and development of a regional framework for increasing access to ocean and coastal data to better inform regional coastal management, policy development, and ocean planning. It started as an idea, echoed by West Coast stakeholders, cobbled together from funding proposals, strengthened by a unanimous vote of need at the National Marine Spatial Planning workshop in Washington DC (see post: Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning – The future is now), and formalized at a workshop the WCGA held in December of 2011. There seemed to be no question that the need existed, but the question was how to go about developing such a system in an era of tough budget cuts. In recognition of this reality, we decided that it would be best to invest in low tech solutions to better connect and support the existing state and federal systems in place. But we needed a group to lead this effort…

The Regional Data Framework ACT was formed to guide the development of the human and technical networks, and in their voluntary efforts, I see the same passion for smart ocean management that guided stakeholders in the Oregon MSP process. The work is just beginning with many foundational steps to be laid, but I hope that in the next year we will be poised to make contributions to pressing West Coast ocean health issues such as adaptation to sea level rise, understanding patterns of ocean acidification, and tracking patterns of marine debris. The ACT just released their formal work plan guiding their work over the next 3-5 years; you should read it here and let them know what you think.

My fellowship has been tremendously rewarding; from experiencing firsthand the struggles and triumphs of working with stakeholders in a marine spatial planning process to learning about the latest GIS technologies, it provided me with all the opportunities I could ask for (and then some). Two years was a perfect amount of time to get my bearings, survey the landscape, and figure out what I wanted to accomplish with the fellowship but now I am ready to move on and apply the things I’ve learned. I am fortunate to be continuing work with the RDF ACT as they move into the next critical phase of their work, and maintain the relationships I’ve developed over the past two years. If it weren’t for the good natured group of fellows, mentors, and colleagues the fellowship would have felt overly daunting at times, many thanks to this group for their support and advice.

Oregon Coastal Managment Program: "Field work" on the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

Oregon Coastal Managment Program: “Field work” on the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

I hope that in the future the WCGA will offer similar fellowships to young people interested in how science and policy interact on the coastlines of the West Coast. It’s not always easy or pretty, but it’s a good lesson for the next generation of marine scientists and policy makers that will not be forgotten.

California’s Marine Life Protection Act

Late last summer I went backpacking with three other Sea Grant fellows through 20 miles of Desolation Wilderness just south west of Lake Tahoe in California.  Desolation Wilderness is a federally protected wilderness area full of beautiful alpine lakes, towering trees, and desolate expanses of granite.  We started on the Pacific Crest Trail from Echo Lake, meandered past Aloha Lake, and camped between La Conte and Aloha our first night.  Despite the massive blisters on my feet, the next day we headed out past Heather Lake and up to Gilmore Lake where we gladly ditched our packs and hiked up to Mt Tallac (elev 9,700’) for an incredibly picturesque view of Lake Tahoe and surrounding smaller lakes.



Photos from our backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. All photos taken by Johanna Weston

To me, the ability to walk out into the woods and get a little lost in federally protected areas is an incredible privilege and something I might consider a right that every citizen of the US has to these pristine areas.  I’m incredibly grateful for the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which allows Congress to designate areas to be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service.  Though I may never be able to afford beautiful lakeside property, in a way, through the Wilderness Act I’ll always be a sort of co-owner of an amazing expanse of wilderness areas.  And I’m perfectly happy to hike many miles into these areas and carry what I need on my back to experience a little peace and quiet.


While reflecting on my “co-ownership” of national forests, I started to think about the oceans and whether we have a parallel system in the marine environment.  Of course there is the National Marine Sanctuary System, and I was fortunate to grow up near Monterey Bay next to the beautiful Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary established in 1992 and expanded in 2009.  The National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 1972 was a great step forward to protect coastal areas by allowing the Secretary of Commerce “to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational, or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries”.  Some states have begun to establish networks of Marine Reserves along their coasts, which goes a step or two further in protecting marine resources.


Photo of kayakers enjoying the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (taken from bluewaterventures)

In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA)  to design and manage an improved network of marine protected areas off California’s coast through a process that involved stakeholder engagement and the best available science. California was divided into four regions: south coast, central coast, north central coast, and north coast.  Just a few months ago in December, the north coast reserves went in to effect and the California Marine Life Protection Act process ended its planning phase and moved into implementation.  Approving the final series of marine reserves may seem like a small thing, but to those who have been through the process from the beginning over a decade ago this is a momumentous moment in California’s own mini Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) process to establish a network of marine reserves along the entire CA coast. 


Map of the marine reserves established along the central coast of California through the MLPA process


Preservation of these terrestrial and marine ecosystems through marine santuaries, marine reserves, national forests, and national wilderness areas sets aside large swaths of land and ocean to be enjoyed by many generations into the future. The goals and objectives of the two types of protected areas are slightly different, but knowing there are places in the world  set aside for the protection of species and wildlife is reassuring.  I think the folks who created Desolation Wilderness in 1899 would be pleased that a group of three girls could venture into the wilderness over a century later with nothing but the packs on their backs to explore and enjoy this national wilderness.  Marine reserves  and National Sanctuaries similarly preserve a wealth of ecosystem services as well as areas for people to enjoy for years to come.  So, I encourage you to go out and explore these areas be it carefully walking through the intertidal to see the animals and algae living in tidepools, kayaking across the surface, SCUBA diving through the kelp forest, or just lazing on the beach.

PCC, WCGA, WGA oh my!

Navigating the world of regional ocean management along the West Coast is complicated and one often becomes lost in a bit of acronym riddled alphabet soup. Regional efforts to protect and sustain vital ocean and coastal resources have resulted in the formation of several groups, each tasked with different yet somewhat overlapping priorities and issues. After all, it’s a big ocean, it’s a big geography to deal with, and it’s a tangle of geopolitical boundaries and jurisdictions.

This post is something like the “yellow-brick road” of the West Coast Land of Acronyms. I’m interested in three Governor level groups: the Pacific Coast Collaborative, the West Coast Governors Alliance, and the Western Governors‘ Association. What are these groups? What are they working on, and how do they connect?




Western Governors’ Association:

Established in 1984, the Western Governors’ Association is an independent, non-partisan organization of Governors from 19 Western states, two Pacific-flag territories and one commonwealth. The Association was formed to provide strong multi-state leadership in an era of critical change in the economy and demography of the West. The Western Governors recognize that many vital issues and opportunities shaping our future cross state lines and are shared throughout the West.




The Pacific Coast Collaborative:

On June 30, 2008, the leaders of the five jurisdictions signed the Pacific Coast Collaborative Agreement, the first agreement that brings together the Pacific leaders as a common front to set a cooperative direction into the Pacific Century.  Out of this agreement was born the Pacific Coast Collaborative — a formal basis for cooperative action, a forum for leadership and information sharing, and a common voice on issues facing Pacific North America. The Collaborative includes the three west coast states, Alaska, and British Columbia.




West Coast Governors Alliance:

On September 18, 2006 the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington, signed the West Coast GovernorsAgreement on Ocean Health. The Agreement, now called an Alliance, launched a new, proactive regional collaboration to protect and manage the ocean and coastal resources along the entire West Coast, as called for in the recommendations of the U.S. Commissionon on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission.

I’ll start with what I know best. I work for the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA). The WCGA completed an Action Plan in 2008 that consists of 26 action items achieve a vision for the health of West Coast  coastal and ocean resources, including clean coastal waters and economically and environmentally sustainable coastal communities.

The WCGA isn’t the only group working on ocean health initiatives in the region, however, and with a changing reality for funding and capacity, distinguishing these groups and their efforts has become a priority for those involved to ensure that priorities are met without redundancies and with appropriate coordination.

I asked Keith Phillips from Governor Gregoire’s office in Washington to help explain the differences.

State and provincial leaders have a strong interest in doing things jointly, to leverage their resources, strengthen their messages, and get better results. Groups like the PCC and WGA allow States (and BC) to come together on priority issues because the interests they have in common – and the many issues that don’t just change at the border. These groups deal with a diversity of issues – often the most important issues of the time.”

The WGA represents a much broader geography than the PCC and WCGA, which makes it more difficult to find topics that all 22 states agree on. Generally, the WGA’s mission is to address important policy and governance issues in the West, advance the role of the Western states in the federal system, and serve as a center for shared solutions to regional problems. It has brought attention to issues like regional consistency with the Endangered Species Act, and wildfire suppression and forest health.  In reality, the WGA currently deals very little with ocean health issues, and more with the terrestrial landscape that aligns with the majority of its membership.

When we look at the highlights of the PCC, it is clear the organization addresses a wide range of topics. Because the PCC is meant to serve as a platform for the States rather than for a particular issue, there is little connection between priorities, which range from low carbon energy, to research and innovation, to emergency management. Ocean conservation and climate change are listed as ongoing priorities as well. Under these ocean and climate topic areas the PCC lists actions like the WCGA’s commissioning of the National Academy of Sciences Sea Level Rise study and several state-specific pieces of legislation that reduce emissions, promote green jobs, and encourage development of adaptation strategies for sea level rise. The “work” of the PCC is done by and through the implementing agencies and their partners, using existing groups where possible.

It’s a little easier to find common ground with the PCC which represents four states and BC. This smaller group shares what some call the “Cascadia perspective”; where economies and environmental issues are more closely aligned than in other western states and provinces.

With both groups however, any issue surfacing regionally can be brought to the table. Broader issues that impact more than just the west coast may be brought through the WGA, whereas issues specific to coastal states (i.e. tsunami debris or ocean acidification) would be introduced through groups like the PCC or the WCGA.

Governors get together on issues of interest. Sometimes the entire Collaborative or Association agree – sometimes not, which leads to smaller groups breaking off to adopt a resolution or agreement.

“It doesn’t matter what box they go in – each group serves as a forum for discussion and support” Phillips says.

So where does the WCGA fit in?

Structurally, the WGA and PCC are more “political” than the WCGA, and can adapt and move on hot issues as they arise more easily than the WCGA. Dealing with Japanese tsunami debris is a good example. This sudden event created an immediate need for response, and the higher level structure of the PCC versus the on-the-ground work plan based structure of the WCGA makes the PCC more nimble, albeit less “tangible” in ways. The WCGA is structured with an Executive Committee and actions are carried out by Action Coordination Teams. Work plans are developed and executed on around a four year timeline (there has not been an update to the Action plan since 2008). The PCC works more towards adopting resolutions, promoting issues through state-specific actions, and elevating conversations to a larger regional scale than the WCGA. The WCGA works towards more tangible outcomes, like the eradication of Spartina along the West coast, which is a long term initiative requiring on-the-ground actions to complete the goal.

Additionally, only a section of the PCC’s highlighted priorities deal with ocean issues, while the WCGA focuses exclusively on ocean health. The depth and detail of issues related to ocean health is articulated in the WCGA Action plan – a much “higher level” vision is provided by the PCC.

It’s important to note that no group supersedes the other: they work together to ensure that important issues for western states get the attention they deserve. Both groups highlight the power of partnerships and the commitment to healthy oceans and coastal communities by the region’s governments.

“Just because two different leadership groups raise the same issue, that doesn’t mean there is some problem with overlapping jurisdictions, rather it means the issue is getting broader attention.  This works well as long as the work is done efficiently, and we don’t duplicate efforts.” Keith explains.

One thing is clear: there is no shortage of good work being done on the west coast to protect and sustain our oceans and coastal resources.





Video: Beyond River Mile Five

For nearly 100 years wild salmon populations along the Elwha River, located at the heart of Olympic National Park, have been limited to a five-mile stretch of the 45 mile-long river below the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. In September 2011 engineers began the Nation’s second largest ecological restoration project; a three-year dam removal process, allowing wild salmon and other anadromous fish populations to return to the upper channels and tributaries of the river. But how effective will these restoration efforts be, and how do we measure success? Kinsey Frick, George Pess, and John McMillan, scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, in partnership with other federal, state and tribal organizations in the region are working together to find answers to these important questions. Their research will not only help us understand the impacts of dam removal on wild salmon populations and ecosystems in the Elwha and allow managers to manage the recovering system adaptively, but also help inform future river restoration projects throughout the country.

Back to School: The U.S Ocean Policy Report Card and UNCLOS

A recent U.S Ocean Policy Report Card gave the U.S low marks in its efforts to support and implement national and international policies to strengthen our ability to manage ocean resources effectively. The assessment covered how well the Nation did with respect to

  • National Support and Leadership: C
  • Regional, State, and Local Leadership and Implementation: A-
  • Research, Science, and Education: C
  • Funding: D-
  • Law of the Sea Treaty: F

The report card reads like that of a struggling student, meaning well and trying hard, but ultimately failing to make the changes necessary to succeed. In particular, the Joint Ocean Commission, who conducted the assessment, highlights the lack of congressional support for the President’s National Ocean Policy (NOP) and for the ascension to the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite shortcomings in many areas, the Commission does give credit to increased Federal agency coordination since the roll-out of the NOP and praises the work of regional ocean partnerships, like the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA), in taking leadership roles, engaging stakeholders and achieving on-the-ground success — giving us an A-, not too shabby!

The lowest grade given, an ‘F’, was for the inability of the Senate to vote on ascension to UNCLOS. This international treaty defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. Despite broad support from the business leaders, conservation groups, and security interests, the US has never signed onto UNCLOS, and it is now being debated (again) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
UNCLOS came into force in 1994 and to-date 162 countries and the European Community have joined in the Convention. The Treaty protects National security interests, secures sovereign rights to vast areas of the ocean and seabed (each countries 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone), furthers maritime commerce, and promotes ocean resource conservation. UNCLOS provides the framework for International ocean conservation efforts to address the decline of species and habitats, prevent, reduce, and control pollution, and deal with the growing complexity of managing marine debris. As a party to  UNCLOS, the US would serve in a leadership role to help prevent the further decline of ocean ecosystems.

This is an important international treaty that has positive implications for nearly every aspect of maritime activity. In my opinion, it’s a win-win for the U.S; simultaneously asserting it’s sovereign rights while acknowledging the importance of international cooperation in dealing with global issues. I think the US has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and commitment to ocean health by signing on to UNCLOS as soon as possible.