Coastal Legislators Champion Ocean Protection

January 25, 2019



NCEL Point of Contact

Dylan McDowell
Executive Director


There are 23 incredibly diverse coastal states in the US all connected by a coastal ecosystem that is essential to their economy. These coastlines support entire industries, draw crowds of tourists, and ultimately are a natural barrier against violent storm surges from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. Coastal states alone provide 45% of our nation’s GDP.

These coastlines are irreplaceable, but they are also in trouble. Plastic pollution is invading waterways, sea levels are rising faster than infrastructure can manage, and the chemical composition of the ocean is acidifying at a rate deadly to iconic fisheries like oysters. These emerging threats have inspired state lawmakers to join with coastal businesses and community leaders to identify solutions and protect vital ecosystems for generations to come.

Below are four of the leading ocean issues likely to be prominent in 2019 legislative sessions.

Plastic Pollution

Plastic has become an essential commodity across the globe, but this trend, particularly with single-use plastics such as food containers, has polluted waters and created literal garbage patches in the oceans. Recycling alone is no longer a viable solution, and elected officials are leading a transition to sustainable alternatives.

Lawmakers across the country have introduced bills to phase out single-use plastic, create commissions to identify alternatives, and ensure straws are only available upon request.  California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags and just recently became the first to start phasing out single-use plastics in state facilities. They also recently enacted a law to make straws available only upon request. Many other states have introduced similar legislation and more are anticipated in 2019. 

Offshore Drilling

The decision to open up virtually every coastline to offshore drilling has sparked an immense bipartisan backlash from coastal state leaders. New Jersey banned drilling by restricting leasing in state waters up to 3 miles off of the coastline for offshore exploration, drilling, and development. A similar Republican-sponsored bill in Delaware also passed in 2018. Maryland passed a bill in early 2018 which designates offshore drilling as a strictly liable activity for any damages that could occur. Most recently, California enacted a ban that blocks permits for any pipelines or other facilities in state waters that would be used to expand oil and gas production. These laws use state authority to protect coastlines in both state and federal waters.  

Ocean Acidification

Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are simultaneously impacting the acidity of the ocean–creating a harsh environment inhospitable to important fisheries like oysters. NCEL has worked with legislators in five states who formed commissions related to ocean acidification to study the impact and identify solutions. In New Hampshire and Maine, this has expanded into a larger Coastal Risks and Hazards Commission that includes multiple other factors threatening coastal zones. Acidification has profound impacts on the environment by depleting the bottom of the food chain, but it is most visibly devastating the shellfish industry. Business leaders and legislators are collaborating on solutions that allow fisheries to thrive while also protecting the local ecosystem.

Sea Level Rise

Increased coastal flooding is impacting communities ranging in size from Virginia’s Tangier Island to Miami, Florida. In 2018, Maryland took a proactive step to future-proof planning and development with a bill to require certain state or local highway construction projects to build to withstand two feet of sea-level rise and a category 2 storm surge. Policies like these are important to ensure coastlines can continue to thrive for generations to come. More frequent and more intense storm events due to climate change make coastal resilience more important than ever.  

All things considered, a changing climate means a changed coastline. The resilience of these ecosystems will be more frequently tested over the next 50 years than in recent history and bold solutions are essential for both mitigation and adaptation to weather the storm ahead. State lawmakers are at the forefront of this movement, and NCEL staff stand ready to assist with these efforts.