Skip to main content

Panetta: Don't take oceans for granted

By Leon Panetta, Special to CNN
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
Common dolphins, which travel in a pod, surf the wake of a boat near Long Beach, California.
Common dolphins, which travel in a pod, surf the wake of a boat near Long Beach, California.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leon Panetta has worked in Washington, but his beloved California coastline is home
  • Ocean Commission 10 years ago found depleted fisheries, polluted rivers and bays
  • Panetta: Stewardship of oceans has improved, especially in control of overfishing
  • Still ahead: Curbing development, guarding wetlands, dealing with warmer waters

Editor's note: Leon E. Panetta co-chaired the Pew Ocean Commission and founded the Panetta Institute at California State University, Monterey Bay. A lifelong public servant, he most recently served as secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

Carmel Valley, California (CNN) -- Although my work has been in Washington, D.C., my home and heart have always been along the beautiful coastline of the Monterey Peninsula in California. It's a place where I first developed my dedication to public service. And it inspired what would become a lifelong effort to promote responsible stewardship of our oceans.

Healthy oceans benefit all Americans, whether they live on our nation's coasts or in the heartland. That's why I eagerly agreed in the mid-2000s to help lead the Pew Ocean Commission, a special effort to bring together leading voices from around the United States to examine the health of our oceans through the lens of science, not partisan politics.

Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta

Ten years ago, the commission released its findings, the nation's first comprehensive report on the state of America's marine environment in more than 40 years. Because of leadership from both sides of the aisle in Congress and from Democratic and Republican administrations alike, we've made remarkable progress over the past decade since the release of that report to address many of the problems it identified. But, there's still much work to be done.

Our oceans are a tremendous economic engine, providing jobs for millions of Americans, directly and indirectly, and a source of food and recreation for countless more. Yet, for much of U.S. history, the health of America's oceans has been taken for granted, assuming its bounty was limitless and capacity to absorb waste without end. This is far from the truth.

The situation the commission found in 2001 was grim. Many of our nation's commercial fisheries were being depleted and fishing families and communities were hurting. More than 60% of our coastal rivers and bays were degraded by nutrient runoff from farmland, cities and suburbs. Government policies and practices, a patchwork of inadequate laws and regulations at various levels, in many cases made matters worse. Our nation needed a wake-up call.

The situation, on many fronts, is dramatically different today because of a combination of leadership initiatives from the White House and old-fashioned bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill.

James Cameron's scientific discovery
A different kind of street view

Perhaps the most dramatic example can be seen in the effort to end overfishing in U.S. waters. In 2005, President George W. Bush worked with congressional leaders to strengthen America's primary fisheries management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. This included establishment of science-based catch limits to guide decisions in rebuilding depleted species.

These reforms enacted by Congress are paying off. In fact, an important milestone was reached last June when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it had established annual, science-based catch limits for all U.S. ocean fish populations. We now have some of the best managed fisheries in the world.

Progress also is evident in improved overall ocean governance and better safeguards for ecologically sensitive marine areas. In 2010, President Barack Obama issued a historic executive order establishing a national ocean policy directing federal agencies to coordinate efforts to protect and restore the health of marine ecosystems. President George W. Bush set aside new U.S. marine sanctuary areas from 2006 through 2009. Today, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, one of several marine monuments created by the Bush administration, provides protection for some of the most biologically diverse waters in the Pacific.

Despite the strides made in the 10 years since the Pew Oceans Commission issued its report, challenges remain. Coastal development continues, largely unchecked, and wetlands and marshes continue to shrink. That exposes more than half of the Americans who live along the coasts to the physical and economic damage caused by increasingly high-intensity storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

On top of that, major challenges that the commission could not see as clearly in 2003, including ocean acidification and rising ocean temperatures, further threaten some of our most valuable fisheries. The United States must pursue a broader, ecosystem-based approach to build resilience in our oceans and respond to future threats.

Over my many years in public service, I've seen many commissions come and go. But I'm perhaps most proud of the work the Pew Ocean Commission did to warn about the threat posed to our oceans and call for change.

Every time I take my grandchildren to play on the beaches of Monterey Bay, my resolve to keep the issue of responsible ocean stewardship forefront on the agenda of policymakers in Washington becomes even stronger.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leon Panetta.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT