Ocean Issues on Capitol Hill: A Q&A with Congressman Sam Farr

Ocean Conservancy engages with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to benefit and protect our ocean and its wildlife. Congressman Sam Farr, founder and chair of the House Oceans Caucus, has championed legislation to protect the ocean and fought against legislation threatening the ocean during his 23 years in Congress. Farr is California’s Central Coast longest serving member — a district that includes the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the majestic Big Sur coastline. So it isn’t surprising that Farr is known for his passion for the ocean. He uses his position as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee to bolster the nation’s land and ocean resources. We spoke with Farr recently about ocean issues in Washington.

     1. You’ve always been a champion of the ocean in Congress, where does your passion come from?

After school when I was a young kid, I spent my evenings exploring the tidal pools along the shores of the Monterey Bay. I was fascinated by all the different species that would be in those pools and wanted to learn everything I could about them. What started as childhood curiosity eventually turned into a lifelong passion. In high school, I had a biology teacher that inspired me and so upon graduating, I left for college planning on becoming a biology teacher. Life had a different plan. I joined the Peace Corps after hearing President Kennedy’s call to action and that was the beginning of my public service career. Serving in office at the local, state and now federal level, helped me gain a better understanding of how dependent we are on the ocean for our health and livelihood. When I came to Congress 23 years ago, I made it my mission to help raise awareness and be an advocate for our greatest natural resource.

     2. As a member of the House Committee on Appropriations, how do you use the appropriations process to further awareness about our ocean?

In this era of cut, squeeze and trim in Washington, funding for the ocean is a constant target.  As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I am in a great place to both fight for that funding but also explain to other members why ocean funding is necessary. Beyond those who represent a coastal community, few members of Congress truly understand how important the ocean is to our national economy. So my job is to constantly explain why ocean programs are important and then fight to preserve what little funding is already there. For instance, recently I fought to save the B-WET program that for many K-12 students is their only exposure to the role they can play in protecting our bays and watersheds. Reaching kids at an early age fosters a connection to the ocean that lasts throughout their lifetime. Fortunately, I was able to restore the funding to this important program and so we can inspire the next generation of ocean champions.

     3. Ocean acidification impacts coastal communities and their economies, what are you doing to address this growing problem?

I have been working with members on both sides of the aisle to introduce bipartisan legislation to tackle ocean acidification. The bill is finalized and we hope to introduce it when Congress returns next week. Scientists have already shown how harmful ocean acidification is to the shellfish industry. However, we still don’t have a firm grasp on the entire scope of the problem and the effects it will have on other forms of marine life. This bill is not just about solving the problem; it’s about saving industries like the shellfish industry or the tourism industry that is dependent upon beautiful healthy coral reefs. Our bill increases funding for the research into the problem but also helps shift the focus to ways we can mitigate the damage.  While we search for ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the ocean, we also need to find ways to reduce the impact ocean acidification will have on our economy.

     4. The West Coast has recently kicked off a regional ocean planning initiative. How does this process help coastal communities?

In any coastal community there are typically a few dozen federal, state and local agencies that manage their own domains in the ocean. In the past, all of these groups were operating in their own little silos with minimal communication and practically no collaboration. That is dumb-dumb policy. Regional ocean planning as part of the National Ocean Policy finally brings everyone to the table and working together. More communication and collaboration will lead to better management of the ocean. Coastal communities will benefit greatly from this streamlined process because it removes all the confusion, allowing for smarter planning and use of the ocean. This increase in efficiency will also help save taxpayer dollars. It’s a win-win. We already see this happening on the East Coast where the planning bodies have been in place for a few years and it is now spurring development. That is what makes the Republicans’ constant attacks on the National Ocean Policy so frustrating, especially from those who only oppose it because it came from this White House. It’s about smarter more efficient government; not more government, and that is something both sides of the aisle should support.

     5. The Magnuson-Stevens Act has led to many successes in ocean conservation. Congress is now considering a reauthorization of the act. How would the bill in its current form change things on the water?

One of the favorite games in Washington is to give a bill a great sounding name and then have the bill do the exact opposite. We saw this in the past with legislation like the Clear Skies Act, which did nothing more than give a free license to polluters to keep on dumping toxins into the air. They call this latest bill the “Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act” and yet it does nothing to strengthen our fishing industry. Instead, the bill threatens the long-term health of the industry by eliminating all of the protections that successfully saved many species of fish. Thanks to the original Magnuson-Stevens Act, overfished stocks are at an all time low leaving an abundant stock for commercial and recreational fisherman. Only in Congress would you take a policy that is working great and toss it out for something this harmful.

     6. What do you see as the biggest obstacle our ocean face in Congress?

Congress right now is filled with too many short-sighted members — too eager to let partisan bickering deter from long term planning. I see it in the constant attacks on the National Ocean Policy and the attempts to deregulate or defund marine programs. The majority in Congress are quick to sellout the ocean for fleeting economic gains. They ignore the crash that always follows in those boom and bust cycles. This lack of forward thinking is bad in any economy but it’s even worse when you are dealing with the blue economy which is dependent on a healthy, productive ocean. Wall Street may recover quickly after a crash but coastal economies destroyed by polluted ecosystems take longer to bounce back and, of course, extinct fish will never come back. We need more leaders in Congress who can look further down the road than the next election. That will only happen if the public speaks up and starts holding their members accountable when they vote for these stupid policies. Change won’t come out of Washington it will only come out grassroots efforts. So if you love the ocean and want to help improve its health, I encourage you to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

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