Managing Oceans: the inner-workings of marine policy

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

When we hear “marine policy” we broadly lump it together with environmental policy. However, marine ecosystems differ greatly from their terrestrial counterparts. We wouldn’t manage a forest like an ocean, nor would we manage an ocean like a forest. Why not? The answer to this question is complex and involves everything from ecology to politics.

Oceans do not have borders; they are fluid and dynamic. Interestingly, by defining marine ecosystems we are applying some kind of borders. But water (and all its natural and unnatural content) flows between these ‘ecosystems’. Marine ecosystems are home to a variety of anthropogenic activities such as transportation and recreation, in addition to an abundance of species that represent the three major domains of biology: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. Humans are the only creatures who “recognize” the borders that policymakers and policy actors have instilled. A migrating gray whale does not have a passport stamped as it travels from its breeding grounds in Mexican waters to its feeding grounds in the Gulf of Alaska. In contrast, a large cargo ship—or even a small sailing vessel—that crosses those boundaries is subjected to a series of immigration checkpoints. Combining these human and the non-human facets makes marine policy complex and variable.

The eastern Pacific gray whale migration route includes waters off of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Source:

Environmental policy of any kind can be challenging. Marine environmental policy adds many more convoluted layers in terms of unknowns; marine ecosystems are understudied relative to terrestrial ecosystems and therefore have less research conducted on how to best manage them. Additionally, there are more hands in the cookie jar, so to speak; more governments and more stakeholders with more opinions (Leslie and McLeod 2007). So, with fewer examples of successful ecosystem-based management in coastal and marine environments and more institutions with varied goals, marine ecosystems become challenging to manage and monitor.

A visual representation of what can happen when there are many groups with different goals: no one can easily get what they want. Image Source: The Brew Monks

With this in mind, it is understandable that there is no official manual on policy development.  There is, however, a broadly standardized process of how to develop, implement, and evaluate environmental policies: 1) recognize a problem 2) propose a solution 3) choose a solution 4) put the solution into effect and 4) monitor the results (Zacharias pp. 16-21). For a policy to be deemed successful, specific criteria must be met, which means that a common policy is necessary for implementation and enforcement. Within the United States, there are a multiple governing bodies that protect the ocean, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Department of Defense (DoD)—all of which have different mission statements, budgets, and proposals. To create effective environmental policies, collaboration between various groups is imperative. Nevertheless, bringing these groups together, even those within the same nation, requires time, money, and flexibility.

This is not to say that environmental policy for terrestrial systems, but there are fewer moving parts to manage. For example, a forest in the United States would likely not be an international jurisdiction case because the borders are permanent lines and national management does not overlap. However, at a state level, jurisdiction may overlap with potentially conflicting agendas. A critical difference in management strategies is preservation versus conservation. Preservation focuses on protecting nature from use and discourages altering the environment. Conservation, centers on wise-use practices that allow for proper human use of environments such as resource use for economic groups. One environmental group may believe in preservation, while one government agency may believe in conservation, creating friction amongst how the land should be used: timber harvest, public use, private purchasing, etc.

Linear representation of preservation versus conservation versus exploitation. Image Source: Raoof Mostafazadeh

Furthermore, a terrestrial forest has distinct edges with measurable and observable qualities; it possesses intrinsic and extrinsic values that are broadly recognized because humans have been utilizing them for centuries. Intrinsic values are things that people can monetize, such as commercial fisheries or timber harvests whereas extrinsic values are things that are challenging to put an actual price on in terms of biological diversity, such as the enjoyment of nature or the role of species in pest management; extrinsic values generally have a high level of human subjectivity because the context of that “resource” in question varies upon circumstances (White 2013). Humans are more likely to align positively with conservation policies if there are extrinsic benefits to them; therefore, anthropocentric values associated with the resources are protected (Rode et al. 2015). Hence, when creating marine policy, monetary values are often placed on the resources, but marine environments are less well-studied due to lack of accessibility and funding, making any valuation very challenging.

The differences between direct (intrinsic) versus indirect (extrinsic) values to biodiversity that factor into environmental policy. Image Source:

Assigning a cost or benefit to environmental services is subjective (Dearborn and Kark 2010). What is the benefit to a child seeing an endangered killer whale for the first time? One could argue priceless. In order for conservation measures to be implemented, values—intrinsic and extrinsic—are assigned to the goods and services that the marine environment provides—such as seafood and how the ocean functions as a carbon sink. Based off of the four main criteria used to evaluate policy, the true issue becomes assessing the merit and worth. There is an often-overlooked flaw with policy models: it assumes rational behavior (Zacharias 126). Policy involves relationships and opinions, not only the scientific facts that inform them; this is true in terrestrial and marine environments. People have their own agendas that influence, not only the policies themselves, but the speed at which they are proposed and implemented.

Tourists aboard a whale-watching vessel off of the San Juan Islands, enjoying orca in the wild. Image Source: Seattle Orca Whale Watching

One example of how marine policy evolves is through groups, such as the International Whaling Commission, that gather to discuss such policies while representing many different stakeholders. Some cultures value the whale for food, others for its contributions to the surrounding ecosystems—such as supporting healthy seafood populations. Valuing one over the other goes beyond a monetary value and delves deeper into the cultures, politics, economics, and ethics. Subjectivity is the name of the game in environmental policy, and, in marine environmental policy, there are many factors unaccounted for, that decision-making is incredibly challenging.

Efficacy in terms of the public policy for marine systems presents a challenge because policy happens slowly, as does research. There is no equation that fits all problems because the variables are different and dynamic; they change based on the situation and can be unpredictable. When comparing institutional versus impact effectiveness, they both are hard to measure without concrete goals (Leslie and McLeod 2007). Marine ecosystems are open environments which add an additional hurdle: setting measurable and achievable goals. Terrestrial environments contain resources that more people utilize, more frequently, and therefore have more set goals. Without a problem and potential solution there is no policy. Terrestrial systems have problems that humans recognize. Marine systems have problems that are not as visible to people on a daily basis. Therefore, terrestrial systems have more solutions presented to mitigate problems and more policies enacted.

As marine scientists, we don’t always immediately consider how marine policy impacts our research. In the case of my project, marine policy is something I constantly have to consider. Common bottlenose dolphins are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and inhabit coastal of both the United States and Mexico, including within some Marine Protected Areas (MPA). In addition, some funding for the project comes from NOAA and the DoD. Even on the surface-level it is clear that policy is something we must consider as marine scientists—whether we want to or not. We may do our best to inform policymakers with results and education based on our research, but marine policy requires value-based judgements based on politics, economics, and human objectivity—all of which are challenging to harmonize into a succinct problem with a clear solution.

Two common bottlenose dolphins (coastal ecotype) traveling along the Santa Barbara, CA shoreline. Image Source: Alexa Kownacki


Dearborn, D. C. and Kark, S. 2010. Motivations for Conserving Urban Biodiversity. Conservation Biology, 24: 432-440. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01328.x

Leslie, H. M. and McLeod, K. L. (2007), Confronting the challenges of implementing marine ecosystem‐based management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 5: 540-548. doi:10.1890/060093

Munguia, P., and A. F. Ojanguren. 2015. Bridging the gap in marine and terrestrial studies. Ecosphere 6(2):25.

Rode, J., Gomez-Baggethun, E., Krause, M., 2015. Motivation crowding by economic payments in conservation policy: a review of the empirical evidence. Ecol. Econ. 117, 270–282 (in this issue).

White, P. S. (2013), Derivation of the Extrinsic Values of Biological Diversity from Its Intrinsic Value and of Both from the First Principles of Evolution. Conservation Biology, 27: 1279-1285. doi:10.1111/cobi.12125

Zacharias, M. 2014. Marine Policy. London: Routledge.


Diving Deeper

By Taylor Mock, GEMM Lab intern

Greetings, all!

My name is Taylor Mock. Since February I have been volunteering in the GEMM Lab and am ecstatic to make my online debut as part of the team!

For many years, I had a shallow relationship with Hatfield Marine Science Center. As a Newport native, I would spend mornings and evenings glancing over at the Hatfield buildings while driving over the bridge to and from school. I was always intrigued. Sure, I would hear snippets of research from my peers about what projects their parents were involved in, but the inner workings of the complex mystified me.

Toward the end of my Freshman year in 2012 at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, my mom asked me what my summer plans were. I replied with the typical “I don’t know… Get a job?” She insisted that instead of a job I think about getting an internship; experience that will last more than a summer. I inquired through a family friend (because every person in this little community is woven together some way or another) if any internships or volunteer opportunities were available at Hatfield. She pointed me in the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency and thus began my Hatfield volunteering saga. I worked that summer, and the next, at the EPA under the direction of Ted DeWitt and Jody Stecher on denitrification studies in estuarine marshes. That summer provided me a glorious front row seat to field research and a greater understanding of my potential as a person and as a scientist. Now, this experience was marvelous, but I knew shortly after starting that my heart was elsewhere.

It was during my study abroad semester in Belize as part of my internship at the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) that I realized I wanted to work with marine macroorganisms. At TIDE, I engaged in radio telemetry conservation efforts tracking Hicatee (Dermatemys mawii) aquatic turtles. We would spend days on a small boat floating through canals and setting nets in hopes of capturing individuals of this small population to outfit them with radio tracking devices. These would be later used to track foraging, mating, and travel patterns in the region. It was an amazing time, to say the least. I remember waking up on my 21st birthday from my camping hammock and staring up at the lush rainforest above my head with a warm breeze across my face, followed by spending the day in the presence of these glorious creatures. It was heaven. I returned to Westmont the following term and took a Marine Mammal Eco-Physiology course and absolutely fell in love with Cetacea. Yes, I had always been captivated by this clade of beings (and truthfully when I was eight years old had a book on “How to Become a Marine Mammal Trainer”), but this was deeper. Of course, pinnipeds and otters and polar bears and manatees were enjoyable to learn about. There was something about the Cetacea though and how they migrated up and down the coast (just like me!) that I really connected with. My time learning about these animals created an intimate understanding of another group of species that developed into a rich, indescribable empathetic connection. I had to take a couple years away from scholastics and away from biology for health and wellness reasons. One day, though, a couple years after graduating and returning to Newport I rekindled with Jody from the EPA. He asked me if I would like to volunteer under Leigh Torres in the Marine Mammal Institute at HMSC. I do not think I could have possibly said no. I have been enjoying my time in the GEMM Lab ever since!

Though I am available to help anyone with any task they need, the work I do mostly centers around photogrammetry.

Using photogrammetry skills to measure gray whales in the GEMM Lab.

Photogrammetry, essentially, means geo-spatially measuring objects using photographs. What that looks like for me is taking an aerial photograph (extracted from overhead drone video footage) of a whale, running the image through a computer program called “Matlab”, taking a series of measurements from the whale (e.g., tip of the mandible to the notch of the fluke, distance between each tip of the fluke, and several measurements across the midsection of the whale). Several images of individuals are processed in order to find an average set of measurements for each whale.

Final result of the photogrammetry method on a gray whale

You might be wondering, “How can one measure the distance accurately from just a photograph?” I am glad you asked! The drones are outfitted with a barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure and, in turn, altitude. The changing altitudes are recorded in a separate program that is run simultaneously with the video footage. Thus, we have the altitudinal measurements for every millisecond of the drone’s flight. To monitor the accuracy and functionality of the barometer, calibrations are completed upon deployment and retrieval of each drone flight. To calibrate: the initial takeoff height is measured, a board of known length is thrown into the water, the drone will then rise or lower slowly above the board between 10 and 40 m, photographs of the board are then taken from varying altitudes, and are processed in Matlab.

During my time in the GEMM Lab, I have had the pleasure of completing photogrammetry assignments for both Leila on the Oregon Coast gray whale and for Dawn on the New Zealand blue whale projects. These ladies, and the other members of the GEMM Lab, have been so patient and gracious in educating me on the workings of Matlab and the video processing systems. It is a distinct honor working with them and to delight in the astounding nature of these creatures together. Each day I am struck in sheer awe of how beautiful and powerful these whales truly are. Their graceful presence and movement through the water rivals even the most skillful dancer.

Over the last 6 years, I am delighted to say that my relationship with Hatfield has become much deeper. The people and the experiences I have encountered during my time here, especially in the GEMM Lab, have been nothing short of incredible. I am sincerely grateful for this continued opportunity. It fills my soul with joy to engage in work that contributes to the well being of the ocean and its inhabitants.

Thank you, Leigh and all of the GEMM Lab members. I hope to continue volunteering with you for as long as you will have me.