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Ecosystem Model Mandate for a Comprehensive United States Ocean Policy and Law of the Sea
San Diego Law Review (1989)
  • Martin H. Belsky, University of Akron School of Law

More than twenty years ago, the United States Congress recognized that this nation had "to give serious and systematic attention to our marine environment and to the potential resources of the oceans." It, therefore, established a special Presidential Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources to "formulate a comprehensive, long-term, national program for marine affairs designed to meet present and future national needs in the most effective possible manner.

In 1969, that Commission, popularly called the Stratton Commission, issued its report. It detailed a "plan for national action" premised on a comprehensive ocean policy and program with one new federal agency responsible for implementation.

The Commission found that overlapping and conflicting laws and regulations and the lack of coordination among federal, state, and local agencies hindered our nation's ability to both protect the oceans and coasts and develop our ocean resources. Moreover, to protect the environment and provide for "constructive management of the living resources of the sea," an "understanding of ecosystem dynamics" was essential.

The solution had to be "comprehensive systems" to regulate our coasts, to manage living and nonliving resources, and to monitor and predict environmental changes in the oceans. Ocean programs and policies had to be integrated by placing the major responsibilities in one federal agency, and by providing mechanisms within that agency for coordination of the activities of other federal, state, and local agencies.

In this article, I will compare the premises and recommendations of the Stratton Commission to America's national ocean policy and program today. I will then suggest that a mechanism now exists to provide for the establishment of a coordinated and integrated national ocean policy. That mechanism is the new international law requirement of comprehensive research, planning, and management for the ocean's space and resources. This comprehensive (or "ecosystem") model for ocean policy and management is binding in domestic United States law and can be implemented under existing statutes by existing federal and state agencies.

Parts II and III of this article will review the history of United States ocean policy. Over the last twenty years, there has been an extraordinary growth of federal and state marine-related programs for research, management, and protection. This rapid growth has, however, been haphazard. Laws have been enacted and policies established in response to different crises and varied constituency concerns. The management and policy framework is oriented to a single purpose and often without consideration of the close interconnections between multiple offshore uses and resources.

These practices have led to criticism that the United States has no ocean policy. Obviously, this is not accurate. We have a "myriad of statutes that authorize scores of programs which are administered by numerous departments and agencies. . . . " The problem has been, and still is, that we have no comprehensive ocean policy.

There has been no coordinating theme to our marine-related programs, plans, and activities. There has been no theory or model that requires those in government and those conducting ocean activities to consider the collective, cumulative, and sometimes conflicting impacts of the separate rules, policies, and actions that are focused on particular uses of the ocean space.

Such a coordinating theme now exists. It is the ecosystem management model. In Parts IV and V of this article, I will describe the evolution of this comprehensive approach into a binding rule of international law. As a result of scientific consensus, scholarly writings, nation-state practice, and international agreements and resolutions, international law now requires an ecosystem-based integrated approach to ocean research, planning, management, and policy. This mandate has been codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Part VI will then discuss the impact of the ecosystem model on United States ocean policy. Customary international law is part of our domestic law, unless specifically overridden by domestic law. Thus, the model, requiring a comprehensive approach to ocean management and policy, is binding on federal and state government officials. In implementing the numerous federal and state laws and regulations applying to the coastal and ocean space, government officials must exercise their discretion, jointly if necessary, to reconcile their mandates with an integrated ecosystem model. Failure to do so is a violation of federal law and redressable in the courts.

The final part of this article will demonstrate how that reconciliation can occur. Old coordinating mechanisms must be strengthened and new ones created. Interested citizens must be willing to seek judicial relief for insufficient administrative action. Funding must be made available, as necessary, to insure adequate planning and coordination of policy.

  • ecosystem model,
  • ocean policy
Publication Date
Citation Information
Martin H. Belsky, Ecosystem Model Mandate for a Comprehensive United States Ocean Policy and Law of the Sea, 26 San Diego Law Review 417 (1989).