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Expert Commission Issues Warning About Degradation of US Ocean Resources - 2004-04-21


An expert commission says continued degradation of U.S. ocean resources and coastlines requires change in the way to country manages its marine territories. The panel recommends a reorganization of U.S. government agencies dealing with oceans and ratifying the 22-year-old United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty.

After more than two years of study, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy cites a dire need to protect ocean resources from overexploitation and pollution.

Congress mandated the group by law in 2000 and President Bush appointed its members. Commission chairman James Watkins, a former U.S. Energy Secretary and once the country's top naval officer, says coastal regions are home to half of the nation's population and generate half of its income, yet they are threatened by overfishing, pervasive water contamination, and lost wildlife habitat.

"Our oceans and coast are in serious trouble," said Mr. Watkins. "We believe the nation needs a new strategy to handle these problems that have arisen. We're calling on Congress and the President to establish a new national ocean policy that balances use with sustainablity, is based on sound science, and moves toward an ecosystem-based management approach."

Such an approach looks at the marine ecosystem as an interrelated whole so that decision makers should consider the impact policies have on the entire system, not just part of it.

But the Commission says to do this, there must be better coordination at all political levels. Admiral Watkins complains that ocean policy is highly fragmented at the national level. He calls it a byzantine patchwork spread over 15 U.S. agencies. There is also a lack of cooperation with lower level agencies in the states.

"These problems were not caused by any particular [presidential] administration," he said. "They are the result of three decades of piecemeal administrative and legislative decisions. That's why it is absolutely vital that we act now to begin addressing them in a meaningful way."

The Commission on Ocean Policy recommends that the changes begin at the top. It calls for a special assistant to the president and council of advisors on oceans. The panel wants the government's existing oceans and atmospheric agency NOAA strengthened and U.S. investment in ocean research doubled. The national government would coordinate policy with voluntary regional ocean councils.

To pay for these and dozens of other marine protection initiatives, the government would collect fees for use of ocean resources, such as offshore gas and oil drilling.

The oceans study panel also urges the United States to ratify the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, adopted in 1982. It and some other industrial countries have avoided this because of disagreement with treaty provisions on deep sea drilling.

The commission's agenda is detailed, but the director of the World Wildlife Fund's Marine Conservation Program, Scott Burns, is optimistic that U.S. lawmakers and the White House will receive it positively.

"The fact that this report has emerged from a bipartisan group could create an impetus for change in the administration, within the Congress, and within the various U.S. agencies that work on oceans-related issues," said Mr. Burns. "And there is reason to think based on recent history that Congress would be willing to look at some opportunities for change. It was just eight years ago that they fundamentally changed America's fisheries management law. I think there will be members of both parties who will be receptive to many of the commission's recommendations."

Commission chairman James Watkins says changing the outdated U.S. oceans management scheme could sustain the country's marine resources and its citizens for the future.

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