U.S. Oceans Commission Emphasizes Ecosystems to Avoid Crisis

WASHINGTON, DC, April 20, 2004 (ENS) - “Our oceans and coasts are in trouble, and we as a nation have an historic opportunity to make a positive and lasting change in the way we manage them before it is too late.” With these words, retired Admiral James Watkins, chair of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, launched the Commission's preliminary recommendations for comment today.

The National Ocean Policy Framework forms the centerpiece of the 16 member Commission’s recommendations for improving federal leadership for oceans and coasts. It would provide better coordination and management of the oceans and move toward a management approach based on ecosystems, the Commission said.

The Framework would be managed by a National Ocean Council in the Executive Office of the President, chaired by an assistant to the President, a structure parallel to the existing National Council on Environmental Quality.


Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (Photo by Captain Albert Theberge courtesy NOAA)
The National Ocean Council would be advised by a nonfederal Presidential Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy, and supported by a small Office of Ocean Policy.

The cost of establishing these entities will be about one million dollars in the first year, and two million dollars each year thereafter, the Commission said.

Funding would be accomplished by the establishment of an Ocean Policy Trust Fund in the U.S. Treasury to assist federal agencies and state governments in carrying out the comprehensive ocean policy recommended by the Commission.

The Fund would be composed of federal revenues from Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas development, other than those currently committed to other funds, and would also include any future rents from permitted uses of federal waters. About $5 billion is generated annually from the various forms of OCS oil and gas revenues, the Commission said.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, the National Historic Preservation Fund, and the OCS oil and gas revenues given to coastal states from the three mile area seaward of their submerged lands would not be affected, and funding these programs would take about $1 billion, the Commission estimated, leaving about $4 billion to fund its recommendations.

The idea of ecosystem based oceans management is an overarching theme of the Commission's report. "The National Ocean Council should adopt the principle of ecosystem based management and assist federal agencies in moving toward an ecosystem based management approach," the Commission recommends.

As part of this, the National Ocean Council "should coordinate the development of procedures for the practical application of the precautionary approach and adaptive management," the Commission said, and "ensure that all resource agencies incorporate preservation of marine biodiversity in the management programs and all research agencies support further study of biodiversity."


Admiral Watkins’ spent nearly 40 years in the U.S. Navy and retired as chief of naval operations. In 1989, he was appointed U.S. Energy Secretary. Later, he served as president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, an organization of more than 60 U.S. marine research institutions. (Photo courtesy U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy)
“If the recommendations contained in our report are adopted," Admiral Watkins said, "we will create sustainable oceans and coasts for many, many years. We will create sustainable ocean resources; sustainable fisheries; sustainable recreation for our children and their children; sustainable economic development; and a sustainable future for our oceans and coasts.”

The Commission calls for a doubling of investment in ocean research, strengthening the link between coastal and watershed management, and implementing the national Integrated Ocean Observing System.

Create measurable water pollution reduction goals, particularly for nonpoint sources, the Commission said, and strengthen incentives, technical assistance, and other management tools to reach those goals.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now administers most oceans programs, and the Commission would strengthen this federal agency and improve its structure.

Also on the issue of governance, the Commission recommends developing a flexible, voluntary process for creating regional ocean councils, facilitated and supported by the National Ocean Council.


Humpback whale breaches in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
These regional ocean councils would operate in parallel with the existing Regional Fishery Management Council system, which the Commission says should be reformed by separating scientific assessment of fisheries and allocation of quotas for various fish species. The use of "dedicated access privileges" should be explored, said the Commission about the controversial privatized quota system.

On the international level, the Commission recommends that the United States accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

And finally, the Commission suggests that attention to ocean education be increased through "coordinated and effective formal and informal programs."

The report met with approval from conservation organizations such as the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a coalition of over 160 national and regional environmental organizations, commercial and recreational fishing groups, aquariums, and marine science groups.

“We applaud the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy for putting our oceans’ health before partisan politics," said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Network. "The Commission has recommended many new conservation measures and key reforms that that all sides can support.”

The Network praised the report’s call for moving toward ecosystem based management, but faulted the Commission for not making specific recommendations to promote ecosystem based management, leaving this task to a new National Ocean Council.

Other strengths of the Commissions report are the recommendations to improve the science upon which management decisions are based, broaden representation on regional fisheries management councils to include the general public.


Shrimp boat working off Biloxi, Mississippi. (Photo by Mary Hollinger courtesy NOAA)
The Network wanted to see a more thorough critique of dedicated access privileges, which are similar to individual fishing quota programs, and specific policies to improve habitat protection, as well as a greater emphasis on the need for fisheries observers to collect data on the catching and killing of non-target ocean wildlife such as dolphins, whales, turtles, and seabirds.

There should have been stronger guidelines to separate scientific recommendations from political and economic influences, the Network said.

The U.S. Oceans Commission was mandated by an act of Congress in 2000 and appointed by President George W. Bush. It began to work in September 2001 with a series of 15 public meetings and 17 site visits in every coastal region of the country and the Great Lakes.

Oral testimony from 440 experts, including many top ocean scientists, environmental organizations, industry, citizens, and government officials was taken and considered along with written testimony from many other people. The Commission calls the process "the most comprehensive and thorough review ever conducted of our nation’s oceans and coasts."

The Commission's draft report has been sent to governors and released to the public online for a 30 day review and comment period from April 20 through May 21. The Commission will then incorporate the comments of the governors and the public and send its recommendations to President Bush for a 90 day review and comment period. Finally, the President will submit proposals for a new national ocean policy to Congress.


Alaskan purse seiner lifts a catch of herring to the deck. 1975. (Photo by J.M. Olson courtesy NOAA)
“It is crucial that governors come back to the Commission with a strong conservation message, because healthy oceans are a vital and significant part of our national heritage,” said Gerry Leape, vice president of marine conservation for National Environmental Trust and co-chair of the Network.

“Not only do coastal communities depend on fishing and tourism dollars for their existence, but inland, seafood processors, retailers and shoppers, marine enthusiasts, and summer vacationers across the country all depend on our nation’s oceans for recreation and sustenance,” Leape pointed out.

Peter Huhtala, senior policy director of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council and co-chair of the Network, agreed. “Policymakers will face difficult decisions when crafting a new national ocean policy,” he said. “But with strong conservation minded leadership, we can come to workable solutions that allow Americans to sustainably use our oceans’ natural resources while ensuring that ocean wildlife will be healthy and plentiful for years to come.”

The U.S. Oceans Commission’s report agrees with a comprehensive independent study released last year by the Pew Oceans Commission which concluded, “America’s oceans are in crisis.” Addressing the crisis of our seas will require "a serious rethinking of ocean law, informed by a new ocean ethic,” the Pew Commission advised.

"This is a call to action," said National Resources Defense Council President John Adams, who served on the Pew Oceans Commission. "The White House and Congress must seize the opportunity to craft a new ocean management system while consensus is strong. Two blue ribbon panels have reached unprecedented agreement about the magnitude and gravity of the threat to our oceans and the need for comprehensive reforms before it's too late."

Visit the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy at: http://oceancommission.gov/

Read the Commission's full report online at: