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.


Life in the lab: notes from a lab meeting

By Florence Sullivan, MSc, Oregon State University

One of my favorite parts about working as a member of the GEMM lab is our monthly lab meeting. It’s a chance for everyone to share exciting news or updates about their research, discuss recent advances in our field, and of course, make the schedule for who is in charge of writing the blog each week!  Our fearless leader, Leigh, usually also has an exercise for us to complete. These have varied from writing and editing abstracts for conferences, conducting mock interviews of each other, reading and discussing relevant papers, R coding exercises, and other useful skills. Our most recent meeting featured an exciting announcement, as well as a really interesting discussion of the latest International Whaling Commission (IWC) reports of the scientific committee (SC) that I felt might be interesting to share with our readers.

First, the good news – Six GEMM lab members submitted abstracts to the 2017 Society of Marine Mammalogy Conference, and all six were accepted for either a speed talk or an oral presentation! We are very proud and excited to present our research and support each other at the conference in October.

And now, a little science history:

The IWC was originally formed as a management body, to regulate the global catch of great whales. However, it never had much legal power to enforce its edicts, and was largely ineffective in its task.  By 1986 whale populations had been decimated to such low numbers by commercial whaling efforts that a worldwide moratorium on harvest was imposed. The SC of the IWC meets on an annual basis, and is made up of leading experts in the field who give advice and recommendations to the commission.  If you are interested in seeing reports from over the years, follow this link to the IWC Archive.  The reports presented by the various sub committees of the Scientific Committee are dense, packed full of interesting information, but also contain lots of procedural minutiae.  Therefore, for this lab meeting, each of us took one of the 2017 Annexes, and summarized it for the group.

Alyssa and Dawn reviewed Annex J: Report of the working group on non-deliberate human induced mortality of cetaceans.  The report shared new data about scarring rates of bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, notably, that 2.4% of the population will acquire a new scar each year, and that by the time an individual is 25 years old, it has a 40% chance of being scarred from a human derived interaction. The study noted that advances in drone technology may be an effective tool to assess scarring rates in whale populations, but emphasized that it is important to examine stranded carcasses to ground truth the rates we are able to capture from aerial and boat based photography.  The discussion then turned to the section about ship strikes, where we learned that in a comparison of fresh scars on humpback whales, and rates of voluntarily reported ship strikes, collisions were vastly under reported. Here it was noted that injuries that did not cause visible trauma could still be lethal to cetaceans, and that even moderate speed collisions can cause non-immediate lethal injury.

Leila walked us through Annex K: Report of the standing working group on environmental concerns. This subcommittee was the first one formed by the SC, and their report touched on issues such as bioaccumulation of heavy metals in whales, global oil spill emergency response training, harmful algal blooms (HABs), marine debris, diseases of concern, strandings and related mortality, noise, climate change, loss of arctic sea ice, and models of cetacean reaction to these impacts.

A few notes of particular interest:

-PCBs and other toxins are known to accumulate in killer whales, but this report discussed high levels of lead and cadmium in gray whales, leading to the question of what might be the source – sediment deposits? Fish?

-Lots of research has been done on the outfall of HABs involving domoic acid; now there is a need for research on other types of HABs

-A website has been created to increase surveillance, diagnosis and risk management of cetacean diseases, and is currently being refined:

-Changing climate is prompting distribution shifts in a number of species, putting animals at risk of interactions with shipping lanes, and increasing contact with invasive species.

-Models of cetacean bioenergetics have found that being entangled has energy costs equivalent to migration or pregnancy. Another model found that naval noise increased the metabolic rate of individuals by 30%. Models are becoming more and more accurate and complex every year, and each new one helps provide a framework to begin to assess cumulative impacts of human-cetacean interactions.

To wrap things up, I gave a brief overview of Annex N: Report of the subcommittee on whalewatching. This report gave quick updates on a number of different whale watching research projects around the world:

-Humpback whales in Hawaii change their swim speed and dive time when they encounter vessels.

-Endangered humpbacks in the Arabian Sea may need management intervention because there have been minimal advances in standards and attitudes by whale watching outfits or recreational boaters in Oman.

-Increased interactions and close encounters may be eroding the protective social barriers between bottlenose dolphins and the public.  The committee emphasizes that cetacean habituation to humans is a serious conservation cause of concern.

After research updates, the document then details a review from the working group on swim-with-whale operations. They emphasize the need for a global database, and note that the Convention on Migratory Species and the World Cetacean Alliance are both conducting reviews of this section of the whale watching industry and that a collaboration could be beneficial. Finally, this committee often gives feedback to ongoing projects and local management efforts, but is not convinced that their recommendations are being put into practice.

As one reads this litany of issues that face cetaceans in the modern world, it can be quite disheartening. However, reports like these keep researchers up to date on the current state of knowledge, areas of concern, and questions that need answering.  They help us set our priorities and determine which piece of the puzzle we are capable of tackling.  For more on some of the projects that our lab has under taken to help tackle these issues, check out Leila’s work on stress in gray whales, Dawn’s work looking at blue whales in New Zealand, Solene’s work on humpback habitat selection, or my work on vessel interactions. Individually, it’s easy to feel small, but when you look through the archives of the IWC, and realize how far we’ve come from extractive management to active conservation, you realize that every little project adds to those before it, and together, we can make a difference.