Congress Urged to Revamp U.S. Oceans Policy

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 30, 2007 (ENS) U.S. oceans policy remains adrift, leaving the nation unable to address the myriad of environmental problems facing its oceans and coastal areas, the co-chairs of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative told a House panel Thursday.

Retired Admiral James Watkins and fellow co-chair Leon Panetta expressed frustration that lawmakers and the Bush administration have largely ignored the recommendations outlined by two national commissions in 2003 and 2004.

The reports issued by the Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by Panetta, and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, chaired by Watkins, came to similar conclusions about the state of the oceans and outlined more than 240 combined recommendations to reform the nation's haphazard oceans policy.

Both commissions concluded that the current regime fails to coordinate goals and is hampered by a lack of funding.

"The government's flaws are many," said Watkins. "We have fragmented laws, overlapping jurisdictions, and an absence of a coherent national ocean policy."

As a result many species are overfished, coastal wetlands and estuaries that serve as nurseries are polluted and disappearing, there are massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of Oregon, commercial fishing interests are suffering, and invasive species are gaining a stronger foothold in many ecosystems.

shore

Lawmakers have been warned repeatedly that the nation's treatment of the oceans and coasts must change. (Photo by Captain Albert Theberge courtesy NOAA)

Panetta said implementation of the recommendations offered by the commissions has been "far too slow and cautious given the state of our oceans."

"Our oceans are in crisis," Panetta told members of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. "We are in danger not only of damaging what is obviously one of the greatest natural resources of our planet but we are in danger of impacting on life itself and I think that is what needs to be brought home to the American people."

Lawmakers at the hearing acknowledged that the federal response to the two landmark reports has been tepid.

"Both painted a pretty bleak picture of the state of our oceans but unfortunately we didn't really do much with this information during the past two Congresses," said Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat.

Legislation to implement some of the recommendations endorsed by the initiative has been introduced in the House and referred to the subcommittee.

"It is up to us to provide the leadership needed to ensure the sustainability of our ocean ecosystems and all that they provide us for the long term," said subcommittee chairwoman Madeleine Bordallo, a Democratic delegate from Guam.

A Bush administration official defended the White House response to the reports, pointing to the creation of a cabinet-level committee to oversee and coordinate the nation's oceans policy and an action plan developed to identify short- and long-term goals for reform.

The administration has made "significant progress" completing 83 percent of its goals to better coordinate policy, said Mary Glackin, assistant administrator for program planning and integration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Glackin highlighted management efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, the creation of a new marine sanctuary in Hawaii and a $131 million increase in its request for NOAA's budget.

But Watkins questioned the effectiveness of the administration's response, noting that the total budget for oceans policy and research is at least $100 million less than last year's appropriation.

"We have been at status quo for three years," Watkins said. "If there is a committee on ocean policy doing something, it is hard to see it."

Funding in the past two years "has been a disaster," Panetta added.

Both commissions called for an eventual $3-$4 billion increase in oceans funding, including a doubling of research from the current level of $650 million.

"It is a modest increase given the consequences if we allow the current rate of degradation to continue," Watkins said.

fishing

Panetta and Watkins praised the reuthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which sets fishery management in federal waters, but called it a rare sign of action to reform oceans policy. (Photo by J.M. Olson courtesy NOAA)

The initiative has endorsed the concept of an Oceans Trust Fund to pay for implementation of its recommendations - the fund would use some $4 billion of the $5 billion annually collected as federal revenues from Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas development and would include any future rents from permitted uses of federal waters.

The earmarked money currently goes into the U.S. Treasury.

But lawmakers remain wary of the idea - Idaho Republican Bill Sali said diverting money to an oceans trust fund would increase the deficit.

"All that money is being used and appropriated today," Sali said. "It is going to have to be made up somewhere else."

"There is no simple answer, no magic answer," replied Panetta, a former California Congressman who served as head of the House Budget Committee. "If you care about the deficit you are going to have to cut spending or raise taxes or both".

The nation's oceans and coastal areas generate some $138 billion in economic activity annually, Panetta said, and their future health merits a greater investment by the federal government.

"You have to decide what are the priorities that you have to invest in for the sake of the country," Panetta said. "If we walk away from it, if we don't make the investment, if we don't develop the skills and science we need, make no mistake about it our child will be asking the question, 'where were we?'"

Panetta and Watkins also called on Congress to strengthen NOAA, adopt a statement of national ocean policy and enact legislation to create an ecosystem-based framework to support regional management.

Lawmakers need to develop regulatory policies for aquaculture, the development of wind energy off the coasts as well as for bioprospecting within ocean waters, the initiative's co-chairs said, and the Senate should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The accord, which has been ratified by more than 140 nations, sets forth international standards for navigating the oceans by commercial and military vessels, fishing on the open seas, mining the sea bed, laying communications cable, and protecting the marine environment.

Although its ratification is supported by the Bush administration, a handful of Republican Senators have blocked ratification of the treaty, arguing it gives the United Nations too much power.

dead zone

The massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is largely a product of agricultural runoff, demonstrating the link between land use activities and the health of the oceans and coastal waters. (Photo by Nancy Rabelais courtesy Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium)

Expanding oceans research is absolutely critical to dealing with the ecological problems facing the coasts and oceans, said Panetta, who pointed out how little is known about the planet's dominant feature.

"We need to expand ocean exploration," Panetta added. "Fifteen hundred people have climbed Mt. Everest, 300 people have gone into space, 12 have actually walked on the moon, but only two people have gone to the deepest part of our oceans. Ninety-five percent of our oceans are virtually unexplored."

Watkins stressed the importance of the oceans with regards to the growing concern about climate change.

"Through there capacity to absorb and transport heat and carbon dioxide, oceans are a key driver of climate change process," Watkins said, noting that there is already ample evidence of changes in the ocean because of the increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

"We need to make sure oceans are mentioned in the climate change debate," Watkins said. "That is the first victim and probably houses our hope for the future if we understand how it operates."

The concern about climate change resonated with Maryland Republican Wayne Gilchrest.

"Climate change is not just something that happens in the atmosphere, not just some thing that melts the polar ice caps," Gilchrest said. "It is something that has a fundamental effect on the ocean chemistry and if we are not careful, if we are not bold, the chemistry of the ocean can become as primitive as it was millions of years ago."

Watkins added that "chronic underfunding" of research programs has hampered the ability to understand the linkages between the oceans and climate change.

"We've cut $500 million out of NASA's earth sciences budget," Watkins told the panel. "What are we doing? That is essential to the Earth observing system. How are we going to make good decisions if we don't have the date flowing in that can then be converted by analysts into useful tools for decisionmakers like you?"

Watkins said he and Panetta would continue to press for action and urged lawmakers to finally heed their recommendations.

"We either believe this is a high priority for the future of our country or we don't," Watkins said. "We think it is and that is why we are staying in the game. We don't get anything out of it.