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.