Coastal Management and Policy
The Worm Wildlife Fund
Washington, D. C.
This paper is one of several prepared for a retreat on coastal zone issues sponsored by the National Research Council's Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources. A number of papers discuss focused technical aspects of the coastal zone such as ocean circulation and coastal meteorology, and others deal with broader subjects such as coastal wetlands and coastal/nearshore littoral systems, land use and the coastal zone, and coastal pollution and waste management. The topic of this paper, ''Coastal Management and Policy,'' inevitably touches on aspects of each of the others. In an effort to minimize the duplication of discussion, I will specifically address three topics that are generic in nature. The first concerns the question of how we are organized to provide governance of the coast. Second, I will discuss several problems encountered in translating science into policy. Finally, I will touch upon the question of how human values and expectations affects the problem of coastal management. In the conclusion, I will offer a suggestion for improving the development of policy for the coast and its management.
THE GOVERNANCE SYSTEM
Perhaps the most salient feature about coastal governance in the United States is the extraordinary degree to which it is fragmented. 1 This fragmentation exists in two dimensions that have important ramifications.
As a consequence of our federal system of government and a concurrent fierce attachment to local authority, coastal governance is divided among at least three levels—federal, state, and local. (Increasingly, the international agenda adds a significant, additional level of authority for coastal matters.)
In some instances the governance authority is exclusively held at only one level of government. For example, land use controls in the interest of flood or erosion management generally are exclusively exercised, if at all, at the local level, while management of navigational systems is largely a federal responsibility.
Other instances are found where authority may be simultaneously and separately exercised by two levels of government. For example, in many states, activities to regulate development in wetlands are carried out by both the states and the federal government.
There are models of governance that provide for the delegation of authority from one level of government to another. Thus, the Federal Clean Water Act provides for delegating most federal authority to the states, and this has been done in many regions of the country.
In some circumstances, the same resource may be regulated by a different level of government depending upon the geographical region of the coastal zone in which it is located. Many species of fish are regulated pursuant to a federal system when located offshore, but the same species (and individual) may be regulated by state authorities when it migrates to freshwater rivers.
Authority may exist at different levels of government with respect to a particular issue depending upon the function being performed regarding that issue. Thus, the responsibility for constructing domestic sewage treatment plants is generally at the local level, while the responsibility for setting minimum standards and (until recently) raising the necessary funds was a federal one.
In addition, there are any number of ways in which these three levels may choose to combine in order to regulate or manage a particular coastal resource or activity. Two or more states, perhaps with the federal government or local authorities, may join together in an interstate compact to create new authorities to manage a particular resource or activity. This has been common for interstate bodies of water and for regional port facilities. They may also reach more informal arrangements that are designed simply to assure a high degree of coordination of multijurisdictional activities—the Chesapeake Bay Program is a classic example.
The subject matter, or issue, of fragmentation of coastal governance adds further complexity. Responsibility for various substantive issues is always widely distributed among a very large number of government organizations at every level. The extent of this fragmentation is well known and need not be repeated. There are, however, several characteristics that are worth mentioning.
In many cases this dispersal of authority is not crisp. There tends to be a certain gradation in responsibility from one agency to the next. For example, while the Environmental Protection Agency is clearly responsible for non-point-source-water quality issues and also manages the nation's national estuary program, the Department of Commerce, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Coastal Zone Management Act responsibilities, also has non-point source water quality functions, as does the Department of Agriculture, through the Soil Conservation Service. The blurring of authorities and responsibilities as one moves from the core function of one agency to that of another can have the disadvantage of diffusing authority. On the other hand, it can also allow for competition among agencies to do a good job.
Even where governments have attempted consolidation in order to eliminate fragmentation of governance, success has been rare. Very large organizations with a multiplicity of missions tend to
be internally diffuse. Furthermore, it is simply not possible to combine everything. Recognizing these short-comings, the tendency during the early 1970s to create super agencies seems to have ended. A notable exception is the recent effort of California to create a unified Department of the Environment. Even within that strengthened department, water-quality-management responsibility is geographically divided among a number of very strong regional water boards. And, coastal management per se is located in the separate Resources Department.
The foregoing discussion has largely focused on the program fragmentation within and among the executive branches of governments. It is important to note that, at least at the federal level, the problem of fragmentation within the legislative branch of government is also severe. There are well over thirty subcommittees of Congress responsible for matters relating to the coastal environment.
USING SCIENCE TO INFORM POLICY AND ACTION
While fragmented systems of governance have contributed mightily to the current poor management of U.S. coastal resources, the many problems associated with properly focusing science on the policy choices have been as harmful. The problem of the relationship between science and policy is not unique to the coast and has been extensively treated by a number of authors. The essential question is how to organize scientific information in a fashion that is understandable to policy-makers and that compels an effective management response even though the information itself is imperfect. There are some peculiar aspects of the coastal marine environment that make this problem even more severe. They do bear some discussion.
Firstly, most of what goes on in the marine environment is invisible to all but the most sophisticated and dedicated investigator. This invisibility condition makes it almost impossible for the citizen or policy-maker to have any intuitive sense of the actual condition of the resource as it may be described by the scientific community. Lacking this, a sense of reality and even urgency, where warranted, is missing. A useful comparison between the effects of invisibility of the marine environment and visibility in the terrestrial environment is found in the Chesapeake Bay. During the 1980s, over 80 percent of the bay's submerged aquatic grasses died. Scarcely anyone noticed. Imagine the public reaction if 80 percent of the forest resources of the bay's watershed had died during the decade. Lack of visibility of marine processes also means that sometimes what is observed can be distorted far beyond the actual importance that the observed event may have scientifically. Thus the washing up of a relatively small number of syringes on the beaches of New Jersey during the summer of 1988 crystallized a public impression that may have been far removed from the scientific reality.
Secondly, the actual science of the coastal environment is extraordinarily complex. Crucial processes take place in the atmosphere, on the land, and within the water. They may be immediate; a watershed away; or, as in the case of El Ninjo, half a world away. They can be physical, chemical, biologic, or some combination of the three. Much about these relationships is not well known. In addition to the extreme complexity of the natural systems, the possible ways in which human activities can intrude are even more complex. They range across the full spectrum of economic and recreational
life not just on the coast but throughout the watershed. These intrusions include pollution, to degradation of fisheries, to development in flood plains, to habitat destruction for homes, and to materials used such as pesticides for agriculture. The sum is hugely complicated, and it has only been in the last ten years that society has really begun to think of the total interaction in anything like a science-based systems way. This inevitably means that for some time to come, most questions about the nature and causes of the problems of the marine environment will be answerable in only the most tentative and perhaps inconclusive terms. This poses serious problems for policy-makers seeking to allocate scarce resources as well as to the public, which is looking for the certainty of environmental protection.
Finally, the inherent complexity of the marine environment and its relationship to land-based activities makes the problem of cumulative impacts especially severe. All too often, adverse environmental consequences take place as a result of a large number of relatively minor activities that occurred long before the consequences themselves. Often the eventual adverse environmental event is dramatic in nature and nearly irreversible. For example, it is difficult to assess the impact on the coastal environment of the conversion of any individual farm or wood lot to a tract housing complex. Yet, there are numerous instances where widespread conversions across a region have resulted in the general decline of coastal resources and, specifically, in the loss of important shellfish resources.
Just as governance has been fragmented, the practice of the science of the marine environment (as much other environmental science) has been fragmented and myopic. For science to be most effective in the face of uncertain knowledge, it needs to develop information from as wide a range of disciplines as possible and search for the integrating themes that begin to illuminate paths for action. For a variety of reasons, this kind of science is neither valued by the academic community nor often sought by the government.
PUBLIC VALUES AND ROLES
There is no single public nor is there a uniform set of values regarding the coastal environment. While there is great diversity, a common driving interest can be seen. That common interest is use. Various parts of the public will tend to define their objective for management in terms of whether the use they make of the coastal environment is protected. Fishermen and seafood consumers will want to be assured that seafood is safe to consume. Surfers and swimmers will want to be certain that it is safe to swim in the water. Those who appreciate the enjoyment of the marine environment, such as bird watchers, will want to know that the ecological system is healthy and viable. And commercial and recreational fisherman will expect that the productive quality of the marine environment is protected.
In summary, the various sectors of the public will desire the following:
fish and shellfish that are safe to consume;
water that is safe to come into contact with;
a healthy ecological system; and
a productive ecological system.
The foregoing discussion suggests that there is not a simply stated set of public objectives for coastal environments. This diversity is reasonable since divergent objectives depend upon the viewpoint of the particular participant in the discussion. No view can be seen as wrong when analyzed from the stance of its own interest and the societal values that it seeks to advance or protect. However, the very fact of the variety of interests and sources of threats suggests one basis of a complex process of risk analysis and priority setting.
A factor which further complicates this already murky picture is that the mix of these various values changes constantly with time. Values held by particular interests can change, and the relative importance that is ascribed to different values by society can change. In addition, the objective factual setting will evolve. Scientific understanding and technological capacity do grow. Choices about risk will vary. The net result, however, during this century, has been a steadily growing body of knowledge about the extent to which the environment is being damaged and steadily growing public demand for improved levels of environmental protection.
There are severe consequences flowing from this fragmented and complex system of governance. Of course, there are the usual problems of waste, duplication of effort, lack of coordination on common problems, and conflicting political agendas. While serious, these are not the most important consequences of the current fragmentation of coastal governance. More important problems are
collective failure to identify the most important threats to the quality of the coastal environment;
failure to design a responsive management strategy that allocates scarce resources to the most critical problems;
occasional massive attention to a high-profile condition that, even when resolved, will still not solve the identified coastal problem;
an inability of public attention to focus on one political entity as responsible and accountable for the improvement of the coastal environment; and
a distortion of science in that initially clear, positive research studies result in confused conclusions.
In essence, all this means that (1) unwise actions are often taken, (2) responsibility and accountability for the wise management of coastal resources is diffuse, and (3) the process is often inaccessible to concerned publics.
There have been a limited number of efforts to improve this situation. At the federal level, the only significant attempt was the enactment of the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972. It can be
argued that this statute provided the opportunity for the federal government to initiate a process of forging, at the state level, a system of governance that would meld the disparate functions into a coherent whole. However, this opportunity was generally missed as the federal program only sought to achieve a state coastal program designed around a system of various, loosely coordinating authorities. The result has been that separate authorities remain dominant and that common actions are still lacking.
Solutions to these problems can be found through implementation of a governance strategy based on the concepts of integrated coastal management. In brief, integrated coastal management is a methodology that identifies important scientific and human-value issues on an ecological basis, compares the risks posed, and develops risk management options that effectively allocate scarce resources to the most important problems. This dynamic process is action oriented and iterative with refinements being based on monitoring, research, and institutional responses.
The first step in actually implementing such a strategy would be to identify a single government entity to be assigned the actual responsibility of assuring that integrated coastal management is carried out. This does not mean that all governmental functions must be combined in one superagency. In highly complex or geographically widespread situations, it may mean that new coordinating bodies need to be established. In either case, in order to be effective the responsible entity should have the authority in the following areas: planning for integrated coastal management, monitoring for environmental results, coordinating of budgets, and data management.