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The Ocean and President Trump

Like a rogue wave the election victory of Donald Trump for President left about half the nation stunned and the other half giddy with foam.  Among the worried parties environmentalists are girding for a long series of battles around climate and expected attacks on keystone agencies, executive orders and legislation including the EPA, emission standards and the Clean Water Act.

Ocean advocates are focusing on things less noted but equally likely to be deep-sixed such as the National Ocean Policy. President Obama launched this in 2010 to encourage closer cooperation between federal agencies and better coordination of offshore ocean uses at the state and regional level. Still some Republicans consider it the Obamacare of the Ocean, so expect it to be scuttled.

We can also expect continued Senate inaction on ratifying the Law of the Seas Convention, the UN treaty by which most of the world’s nations agree on issues relating to navigation, scientific exploration and territorial claims on and below the ocean.  Hillary Clinton had pledged to see it passed if she became President but some Senate Republicans see it as a UN power grab so the U.S. won’t be signing on for this cruise.

President-Elect Trump has dismissed the scientific consensus on climate change as a “hoax” promoted by China and while he walked this back slightly in a post-election sit down with the New York Times, he is still pledged to expanded oil, coal and gas production “by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters.”  Rising, warming seas, ocean acidification and other impacts from burning fossil fuels, plus the threat of more BP type oil pollution disasters will see blue activists mobilizing a strong resistance from coastal communities and businesses to any newly proposed offshore drilling.

And while some business people are well attuned to the economic benefits of a healthy ocean its doubtful that Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce, billionaire equity investor Wilbur Ross, is aware that his new job even includes oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There are however several action areas that have a bipartisan history of support, and that could see progress even under a Trump Presidency and Republican Congress traditionally hostile to environmental issues.

A good example is the continued pursuit of IUU – Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated – pirate fishing including the use of slave crews trapped on the high seas (for more on this see the new Animal Planet series ‘Ocean Warriors’).  This fight was greatly strengthened by a bipartisan fishing enforcement act passed by Congress and signed into law in 2015 with the support of U.S. commercial fishermen.  So as a bottom line we know Republicans and Democrats can still work together at least to oppose pirates.

Another indicator that collaboration might be feasible:  In 2015 Congress acted quickly to pass the “Microbeads-Free Water Act”, a ban on tiny plastic beads that are used as an abrasive in health and beauty products but then slip through waste-water treatment plants to become concentrators of harmful chemicals in the food web of the Ocean and the Great Lakes.  With California and other states passing bans and environmental concern growing among beauty product consumers the cosmetics industry decided to get ahead of the problem and support the new federal law while reformulating their products.  This could provide a collaborative model for addressing not only the much larger problem of plastic pollution but a range of other marine challenges where a greener (or bluer) marketplace might already be ahead of the government.

Concern over our vulnerable coastlines has also been gaining political traction whether its linked to restoring Louisiana’s receding coastal bayous or addressing harmful algal blooms (aka “green sludge”) that’s been impacting the economy and environment along Florida’s shores for much of the year. I recently visited Stuart Florida, one of several towns experiencing the worst and most extensive harmful algal bloom in the state’s history.  Aside from threatening marine wildlife and human health, the outbreak, linked to agricultural runoff, also threatens the state’s multi-billion dollar tourist industry.  I spoke to Irene Gomes, the small business owner of the Driftwood Motel on the Indian River who told me she’d lost $15,000 of business just in July due to the visible and odorous pollution.  State republicans and democrats, along with the sugar and citrus industries have agreed to begin working together to find a solution.  With pollution fed harmful algal blooms and dead zones now occurring on every coast addressing this national threat to human health, the environment and economy might yet inspire common sense congressional action.

With rising sea levels and the related damage from severe rainstorms and seawater intrusion that contributed to a recent massive sewage spill in Tampa Bay, Coastal Resiliency for cities, ports, power plants and other infrastructure is likely to become a trillion dollar investment in the coming years.   Miami Beach is already investing four hundred million dollars to raise its streets and install water pumps as it experiences increasing incidents of “sunny day flooding,” during high tides.

With President-elect Trump pledging to invest in infrastructure repair there is a strong case to be made for the restoration of ‘living shorelines’ including the planting and rebuilding of sand dunes, sea grass meadows, oyster reefs, mangrove forests, salt marshes and other natural storm barriers that provide additional benefits. Some studies suggest this can be done at a fraction of the cost of building seawalls and other hardened coastal defenses.

As President Obama has said, “We cannot truly protect our planet without protecting the Ocean.”   What President Trump, who owns many ocean front properties might say, is, like the man himself, highly unpredictable.