The coastline at Big Sur in California. Credit: NOAA

Federal-state coordination essential for oceans, says Brown scientist

Speaking to a presidential task force on ocean policy, Heather Leslie urges an “ecosystem-based” approach.
By Richard C. Lewis  |  August 4, 2009  |  Email to a friend

On a Tuesday in late July, Brown marine conservation scientist Heather Leslie received a call with a very special invitation.

The caller wanted to know if she would be interested in addressing a White House task force charged with creating a plan to better manage America’s waters. The catch? She would need to be ready to present in just two days.

Heather Leslie: Heather Leslie Leslie jumped at the opportunity. After all, the Sharpe Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology had just co-authored a book on the subject, Ecosystem-Based Management for the Oceans. Last year she gave a presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science about resilience science – the study of how ecosystems resist and respond to disturbances, both natural and man-made. The increasingly influential area of environmental science is informing marine conservation efforts from the Gulf of Maine to the Great Barrier Reef.

This June, President Barack Obama created the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and gave it 90 days to establish a national policy for America’s oceans, coastlines, and the Great Lakes. The directive seeks to ensure “the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources,” according to a presidential memo establishing the task force.

Speaking before some three dozen executive branch leaders in Washington, Leslie stressed the importance of a holistic approach to managing the oceans. Her “ecosystem-based management” model would bring together federal and state agencies to solve coastal water and ocean issues, such as coastal development, pollution, overfishing, diminished marine habitats, and other concerns.

She spoke in particular of burgeoning ocean-based management efforts in California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. “We can look at these state efforts,” Leslie said, “and see what the federal government can do to increase that coherence and bring it to the next level when it comes to the health of America’s oceans.”

Leslie’s latest book was published in May by Island Press.: Leslie’s latest book was published in May by Island Press. It’s a tall order. Coordination among states, local groups, and federal agencies has been spotty to date, Leslie said, noting that a Transportation Department official had spoken of a “disconnect” between the department’s policies and environmental concerns. More encouragingly, she added, there have been successful collaborations between federal and grassroots organizations in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

Leslie said the panel was “knowledgeable” and listened attentively to her presentation and another by Steve Murawski, director of scientific programs and chief science advisor for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

“I was really heartened at how interested they were and the sophisticated questions they asked,” Leslie said. “They clearly are engaged to help resolve these issues.”

It appears Leslie made an impression. After the meeting, a representative from the Office of Management and Budget approached her and asked what he should read to prepare his boss for an upcoming trip to Puget Sound. Leslie told him she had left a copy of her book with the panel.