Oceans Report Card Gives U.S. Government an F for Funding

WASHINGTON, DC, January 30, 2007 (ENS) - The failure of Congress and the President to commit sufficient funding to oceans protection in 2006 earned the federal government a grade of F on the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative's U.S. Ocean Policy Report Card, issued today.

State government initiatives, federal fisheries reform, and the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument earned the highest marks, with regional and state ocean governance reform getting the highest grade for any of the six subjects measured in the report card, an A-.

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Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the clear lagoon waters of Kure Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Photo by James Watt courtesy NOAA)
The United States received an average grade of C- for all six subjects, up slightly from the D+ assigned for 2005 by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.

Admiral James D. Watkins, co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, told reporters on a conference call today that the oceans are in deep trouble, in part due to the effects of climate change.

"Storms, flooding, acidification, fisheries stock failures, algal blooms, dead zones, invasive species, loss of coral reefs which nurture one-third of the world's fisheries - we can't wait any longer if we're to reverse the decline," the admiral warned.

"Addressing climate change is a high priority for most Americans, and although the climate and oceans are inexorably intertwined, the critical role oceans play in climate change is seldom addressed," Watkins said. "Our failure to increase ocean science investments to learn more about this link and how to manage its impacts means we are trying to fight climate change with one arm tied behind our back."

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Dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas is an area of low oxygen. (Photo by Nancy Rabelais courtesy Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium)
"In the race to preserve our oceans, the states are outdistancing the federal government," said Leon Panetta, the other co-chair of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.

"Our expert commissions have told Congress and the administration what they can do to pick up the pace and immediately begin to reverse ocean decline," Panetta said. "To bring this grade up in 2007, the bottom line is that more needs to be done if we are to protect our ocean resources."

The report card is an assessment of the nation's collective progress in 2006 toward fulfilling the recommendations of the Congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, chaired by Watkins, and the non-profit Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by Panetta.

Watkins

Admiral James D. Watkins is a retired U.S. Navy officer and former Chief of Naval Operations. He was Secretary of Energy during the George H.W. Bush Administration. (Photo courtesy )
The two have joined together as the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, guided by a 10 member Task Force, five from each Commission.

The Joint Initiative has identified $750 million in funding priorities that, if allocated in 2007, would be a significant step forward for research, management and education programs.

The recent announcement of an additional $140 million in the President's FY 2008 budget for ocean-related programs is "welcome," the co-chairs said, "but the challenges facing our oceans clearly require a much greater commitment of resources."

Admiral Watkins said that ocean-dependent industries are engines of economic growth, generating about $138 billion annually in the United States.

"The $750 million we recommended, just shy of one day's operations in Iraq, is critical for reversing the oceans' decline," Watkins said.

"For every $1 we invest in oceans, we protect $184 worth of economic activity, it's an 18,000 rate of return, but Congress and the administration failed again last year, earning a well documented grade of F," he said.

Panetta

Leon Panetta served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1994-1996, and represented California in the House of Representatives from 1977. (Photo credit unknown)
The Joint Commission was particularly critical of a 13 percent cut in the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, which Panetta said, "hurts our ability to deal with ocean issues."

Both Panetta and Watkins stressed that legislation is also needed to provide a stronger framework for NOAA, which exists today under an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

To supply the needed funding, the Joint Initiative again recommends establishing an Ocean Trust Fund supported by revenue generated by activities in federal offshore waters. This trust fund was recommended in the Joint Initiative’s 2006 report to the Congress, "From Sea to Shining Sea," and by Admiral Watkins and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy in its report, "An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century," issued in September 2004.

State leadership earned a grade of A- because states emerged as "important champions for oceans" in 2006, the Joint Commission said. The report card praises new statewide initiatives in New York and Washington as well as regional agreements to coordinate ocean management efforts on the West Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Panetta told reporters that the federal government should create a comprehensive offshore management regime to govern all the offshore activities now underway such as wind farms and pipelines. "We need to create aregional ocean governance framework to support the states in their efforts," he said. "The federal government should encourage these efforts and not just on a hit and miss basis."

Fisheries management earned a B+ grade due to the passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, which sets a firm deadline for ending overfishing.

The Joint Commission also applauded the President's designation of 140,000 square miles of protected islands, atolls, and oceans under the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, and the development of a new national ocean research strategy.

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A fishing vessel at work in Florida's Apalachicola Bay (Photo courtesy NOAA)
But Panetta said the Joint Commission would like to see Congress adopt a statement of national ocean policy, "that our nation is committed to protecting our oceans," as Congress has done with clean water and clean air.

Incremental improvements in Research, Science, and Education resulted in a slight grade increase to a D+, up from a D for 2005. Although sophisticated monitoring systems have been in place for decades to measure changes in the atmosphere, no such systems exist for our oceans.

The report card, in line with the administration's research plan, calls for the strengthening of the existing Integrated Ocean Observing System, IOOS, to learn more about the ocean's role in climate change.

The IOOS is the oceans and coasts component of the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System. This system is the U.S. contribution to the Global Ocean Observing System, and also the U.S. contribution to the oceans and coasts component of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, GEOSS.

GEOSS is envisioned as an national and international cooperative effort by 61 countries to bring together existing and new software and hardware, including Earth observation satellites, making it all compatible in order to supply data and information at no cost by 2015.

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An endangered blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, the largest of all cetaceans, surfaces off the Oregon coast. (Photo B. Lagerquist courtesy OSU/NOAA)
The United States remains the only industrialized nation that has failed to accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, earning a grade of D- for International Leadership.

Environmental groups and major U.S. industries such as offshore energy, shipbuilding, and maritime commerce agree that signing onto the convention will help to protect U.S. economic interests as well as the health of the oceans, the Joint Initiative said.

But under the Republican controlled Senate of the past 12 years, a few hostile senators were able to keep the Law of the Sea treaty from coming to the floor for a ratification vote.

"We're feeling a lot more confident about getting the Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea, with new Congress," said Panetta. "If it ever came to the floor of the Senate we think if would pass with 90 votes. We finally think we have the leadership in place to bring it to the floor. This may be the year."

A full copy of the report card, including a detailed explanation of each grade, is available online at: www.jointoceancommission.org.