Advice for Obama: improving the management of ocean ecosystems

Now that he won the election, everyone has advice for Barack Obama on how he should govern and what policies he should support and focus on.  Given the importance of ocean ecosystems and coral reefs, shouldn’t we get into the act?  In fact, several individuals and organizations are drafting advice on environmental policy, pressing environmental issues, etc.  Dr. Steve Carpenter (a prominent limnologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA), recently posted his advice for Obama on the Ecolog lister server (an international discussion board for ecologists).  Ill insert his letter to Obama below, but his four main recommendations are:

Decrease America’s dependency on coal and oil and increase the supply of energy from non-polluting technologies.

Stop subsidizing agriculture that destroys land, water and health.

Have a population policy.

Invest in the education and innovation needed to create a society that could thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

Andrew Revkin at the New York Times blog dot earth recently discussed environmental advice for Obama, particularly that related to climate change.

Dr. Paul Erlich of Stanford University and “The Population Bomb” fame has made his own recommendations for making our society more sustainable that you can read about here.  They include; One: Put births on a par with deaths and Two: Put conserving on a par with consuming.

As part of the Year of The Reef celebration, a consortium of groups put together a list of 25 things individuals can do to save coral reefs.  (personally, I think most of their suggestions are silly and would be ineffectual)

And even former vice president Al Gore has contributed his two cents in a recent New York Times op ed “The Climate for Change“.

So what advice should we, as marine scientists, conservationists and advocates, give to Obama?  Ill make a pitch for a few policies and issues below, but I’d really like to hear from other climate shifts authors and readers what they recommend.

1) Implement a series of no-take marine reserves. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that marine reserves work and have tangible benefits outside their boundaries for people and ecosystems.  Less than 1% of the ocean is fully protected.  We should be protecting closer to 30 or 40% of all marine habitats.  We should also insulate the management of our fisheries from local politics as much as possible, so that managers can make more decisions based on science.

2) Radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally and facilitate international reductions by heavily investing in clean technologies, smart urban and social planning, etc.  Or as Al Gore argues:

We can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

3) Increase the federal budget for ocean research, observing and exploration tenfold. Currently, the US space program (NASA) receives 700X more federal funding than the US government allocates for all combined ocean sciences.  Given the enormous social and economic importance of the oceans and the rate at which ocean ecosystems are being degraded, this is simply crazy.  Despite what you may hear from some advocates, we simply don’t have realistic solutions to many environmental problems and we won’t without a greater investment in basic ocean science.  There is so much about marine ecosystems that we don’t understand and in lots of cases we don’t even have the resources to quantify and/or forecast the impacts of various human activities.

So, what do YOU recommend president-elect Obama do?

November 2008–

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your election, which has created a sense of
optimism in America that has never occurred before in my lifetime.

Yet earth’s life support systems have deteriorated more in our
lifetimes than in any other era of human history. With earth’s
population increasing, and consumption per person growing much faster
than population, humans are heating the climate, polluting air and
water, degrading landscapes and turning coastal oceans to dead zones.
America’s food supply depends on a few fragile crops, grown using
practices that degrade soil, air and water to yield foods of low
nutritional value that harm our health. The U.S. is not investing in
the education and innovation needed to create agriculture and energy
technologies that can get us through the 21st century. Details are
found in a consensus report of more than 1300 leading scientists from
more than 90 nations including the U.S. ( These
findings support the following priorities for your presidency.

Decrease America’s dependency on coal and oil and increase the supply
of energy from non-polluting technologies:  We must decrease emission
of greenhouse gases, and the era of cheap oil is over. We must
accelerate development of clean energy technologies using wind, sun
and tides. These investments must be based on scientific information
to avoid bogus remedies, such as grain biofuels, that sound good but
do not in fact solve the problem. We must increase conservation
through better buildings, efficient transportation, and renewal of
industry. We must improve agriculture and forestry practices to
reduce energy consumption and increase carbon storage in soil.

Stop subsidizing agriculture that destroys land, water and health.
Create incentives for agriculture that maintains land and water
resources and yields healthy food:  Agriculture must shift to
practices that use less energy for tillage and transport of food,
produce healthy food for local consumption, train more people in
diverse farming practices, build soil instead of degrading and
eroding it, and maintain clean water. These reforms can be
accomplished by redirecting federal subsidies.

Have a population policy:  In global impact, the U.S. is the world’s
most overpopulated nation, mainly because of our high per-capita
consumption. Our population is growing rapidly. Global population
growth is a key driver of degraded land, water, air and climate.
Education of women is a powerful lever to restrain population growth.
If all the world’s women are educated to high-school level, human
impact on our life-support system will be more than 30% lower by
2050. As a father of daughters, it is especially appropriate for you
to support education for all of the world’s women.

Invest in the education and innovation needed to create a society
that could thrive in the 21st century and beyond:  Even though our
universities and research centers are the envy of the world, science
education of the general population of the U.S. is weak and must be
made stronger. Education must be reformed to encourage creativity.
There are enormous opportunities for innovations in agriculture,
energy, and infrastructure that will lead to a moderate climate, rich
landscapes, and clean air and water into the future. These
technological opportunities are being seized by other nations while
the U.S. lags behind. We must restore American leadership in creating
technology that maintains our life support system while providing the
energy, food and shelter that people need.

Sincerely yours,

Steve Carpenter

S.A. Forbes Professor of Zoology
Center for Limnology
680 North Park Street
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin 53706 USA

3 thoughts on “Advice for Obama: improving the management of ocean ecosystems

  1. How about appointing an Oceans Advisor position that reports to his cabinet level Science Advisor (assuming Obama appoints one…). We need someone in the upper executive branch whose job it is when he or she wakes up each morning to think long and hard about ocean issues. Someone that can bring together researchers from NOAA, USGS, NASA, NMFA, etc. and recommend avenues of novel research and organize productive meetings that result in workable solutions or realistic recommendations for congress with goals and real world budgets.

    We also need to move to reducing plastic waste in the ocean. I would advise him to lead the rest of the country in reducing waste from the White House, recycling, encourage staff to use canvas bags instead of plastic and gives local governments, businesses and citizens a reason to stop the unnecessary build up of plastic waste in both our landfills and our waterways, coastlines and the open ocean. Remember Mr. President, we are what we eat!

  2. I fully agree with your points John, especially #2; if carbon emissions are not curbed radically, then the capacity of coastal and oceanic marine ecosystems to continue producing goods and services to human communities will be jeopardized.

    However, I did miss one hugely important step that is necessary to succesfully reverse the ongoing decline of marine systems. The harsh reality of the matter is current management initiatives simply do not work because they do not take into account the obvious poverty traps in many coastal communities. We often forget that the economic realities and lack of resources in the VAST majority of coastal communities provides little maneuvering room for sustainable marine management. What is needed are new forms of governance and management that work with and for local communities, and that can achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

  3. That is a great point Albert. I am quite undereducated in the socio-economic realm, but I often wonder how realistic calls to “just stop fishing” are given the vast poverty of many coastal communities. I thought Terry Hughes did a nice job addressing this in his ICRS plenary ( and a related press release (

    ““The global coral reef crisis is really a crisis of governance. Many of the measures put in place are failing, not because of biology, but because of lack of support from local people and governments,” he says.

    “For example many no-take marine reserves have been set up round the world by non-government organisations – but nearly all of them are proving unsuccessful because they ignore the needs of the local population and have failed to win their backing.”

    “You cannot simply remove the needs of hundreds of millions of people from the equation. You have to design your conservation measures so that they also address things like ecosystem services which the ocean provides to humans, and sustainable livelihoods for people who depend on the sea, as well as protecting biodiversity.”

    Ill put this entire release in a new post.


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