WASHINGTON -- Partisan battles are engulfing the nation's ocean policy, showing that polarization over environmental issues doesn't stop at the water's edge.
For years, ocean policy was the preserve of wonks. But President Barack Obama created the first national ocean policy, with a tiny White House staff, and with that set off some fierce election-year fights.
Conservative Republicans warn that the administration is determined to expand its regulatory reach and curb the extraction of valuable energy resources, while many Democrats, and their environmentalist allies, argue that the policy will keep the ocean healthy and reduce conflicts over its use.
The wrangling threatens to overshadow a fundamental issue -- the country's patchwork approach to managing offshore waters. Twenty-seven federal agencies, representing interests as diverse as farmers and shippers, have some role in governing the oceans. Mr. Obama's July 2010 executive order set up a National Ocean Council, based at the White House, that is designed to reconcile the competing interests of different agencies and ocean users.
The policy is already having an impact. The council, for example, is trying to broker a compromise among six federal agencies over the fate of defunct offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational fishermen want the rigs, which attract fish, to stay, but some operators of commercial fishing trawlers consider them a hazard and want them removed.
Still, activists invoking the ocean policy to press for federal limits on traditional maritime interests are having little success. The Center for Biological Diversity cited the policy as a reason to slow the speed of vessels traveling through national marine sanctuaries off the California coast. Federal officials denied the petition.
During a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on ocean policy last year, the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, said "opposing ocean planning is like opposing air traffic control: You can do it, but it will cause a mess or lead to dire consequences."
Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who is in a tight re-election race, retorted that the policy was "like air traffic control helping coordinate an air invasion on our freedoms." An environmental group called Ocean Champions is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to unseat him.
The sharp rhetoric puzzles academics such as Boston University biologist Les Kaufman. He contributed to a recent study that showed that using ocean zoning to help design wind farms in Massachusetts Bay could prevent more than $1 million in losses to local fishery and whale-watching operators while allowing wind producers to reap $10 billion in added profits by placing the turbines in the best locations. Massachusetts adopted its own ocean policy, which was introduced by Mitt Romney, the Republican governor at the time, and later embraced by his Democratic successor, Deval Patrick.
"The whole concept of national ocean policy is to maximize the benefit and minimize the damage. What's not to love?" Mr. Kaufman said, adding that federal officials make decisions about offshore energy production, fisheries and shipping without proper coordination.
Nearly a decade ago, two bipartisan commissions called upon the government to coordinate its decisions regarding federal waters, which extend from the roughly three-mile mark where state waters end to 200 miles from shore.
When Mr. Romney moved to establish ocean zoning in 2005 in Massachusetts, he warned that without it there could be "a Wild West shootout, where projects were permitted on a 'first come, first served' basis."
In Washington, however, legislation to create an ocean zoning process failed. The policy set by Mr. Obama in 2010 calls for five regions of the country -- the Mid-Atlantic, New England, the Caribbean, the West Coast and the Pacific -- to set up regional bodies to offer input.
White House Council for Environmental Quality spokeswoman Taryn Tuss said the policy does not give the federal government new authority or change congressional mandates, "it simply streamlines implementation of the more than 100 laws and regulations that already affect our oceans."
House Natural Resources Committee chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said he is not opposed to a national ocean policy in theory. But he said he is concerned that the administration's broad definition of what affects the ocean -- including runoff from land -- could open the door to regulating all inland activities, because "all water going downhill goes into the ocean ... That potential could be there."
The House voted in May to block the federal government from spending any money on implementing the policy, though the amendment has not passed the Senate.
Two influential groups -- anglers and energy companies -- have joined Republicans in questioning the administration's approach.
In March, ESPN Outdoors published a piece arguing that the policy "could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing some of the nation's oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters." The article, which convinced many recreational fishermen that their fishing rights were in jeopardy, should have been labeled an opinion piece, the editor said later.
"Fishermen saw this as just another area where fishing was going to be ratcheted down," said Michael Leonard, director of ocean resource policy for the American Sportfishing Association, whose 700 members include the nation's major boat manufacturers, as well as fish and tackle retailers.
The National Ocean Policy Coalition -- a group based in Houston that includes oil and gas firms as well as mining, farming and chemical interests -- has galvanized industry opposition to the policy. Its vice president works as an energy lobbyist at the law firm Arent Fox; its president and executive director work for the firm HBW Resources, which lobbies for energy and shipping interests.
Brent Greenfield, the group's executive director, said the public has not had enough input into the development of the policy and that his group worries about "the potential economic impacts of the policy on commercial or recreational activity."
Sarah Cooksey, who is Delaware's coastal-programs administrator and is slated to co-chair the Mid-Atlantic's regional planning body, said the policy will streamline application of laws already on the books. "No government wants another layer of bureaucracy," she said.
In Mr. Southerland's re-election race, Ocean Champions has labeled the congressman "Ocean Enemy .1" and sponsored TV ads against him. Jim Clements, a commercial fisherman in the Florida Panhandle district, has paid for seven anti-Southerland billboards, saying Mr. Southerland should support efforts such as the national ocean policy to "help sustain the fishery" that supports local businesses.
Mr. Southerland declined to comment for this article.
Ocean Champions president David Wilmot said that while most policy fights regarding the use of the sea break down along regional lines, the federal ocean policy is "the first issue I've seen that's become partisan. I do not think it will be the last."