Federal Commission Describes Troubled Oceans

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2002 (ENS) - The world's oceans are in trouble, concludes a new, interim report from a federal commission on ocean policies. The midterm report from the congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy raises more questions than it answers, but it marks the first step toward developing a comprehensive, long range national ocean and coastal policy.

The report, issued by the 16 member commission after months of public meetings and visits to marine facilities around the nation, comes half way through the Commission's planned two year mission to detail the problems facing U.S. ocean resources, and recommend a course of action to protect these resources.


Commission Chair Admiral James Watkins (Photo courtesy CORE)
"The oceans are in trouble," begins the report by retired Admiral James Watkins, chair of the Commission and former head of the Department of Energy under the first President George H.W. Bush. "Our coasts are in trouble. Our marine resources are in trouble ... all, perhaps, in serious trouble," Watkins warns.

All of the members of the Commission agree on these points, Watkins writes, but the group still has much work ahead of it before it can detail potential solutions for the ocean's troubles in a final report to Congress and President George W. Bush in June 2003.

Since its first meeting in September 2001, the Commission has visited dozens of marine facilities and taken testimony from hundreds of presenters during these visits and extensive public meetings in Washington, DC and six coastal regions of the United States, the midterm report notes.

The Commission report cites evidence of "dramatic increases" in population and pollution along the nation's shorelines. These "clearly indicate that the nation's capability to manage our coasts is inadequate and yet more critical today than it was 30 years ago when Congress enacted the Coastal Zone Management Act," the Commission writes.


Coastal areas, like these barrier beaches near Westerly, Rhode Island, are being developed faster than ever. (Photo by Hope Alexander, courtesy EPA)
"Ocean pollution is a growing problem, much of it caused by nonpoint sources, such as farming practices, urban runoff and air pollution deposition," the report states. "The sources are numerous and dispersed while the solutions are elusive and challenging."

Fish stocks are continuing to be depleted, the Commission says, due to the "uneven, and often poor" record of marine fishery management. "Scientific advice has been ignored all too often at the expense of fisheries and the long term sustainability of the fishing industry," the Commission writes.

Many other industries are also impacted by the healthy of the world's oceans, the report notes. More than 95 percent of the cargo coming into and out of the United States is moved by ship, a number that is expected to double by the year 2020.

"It is imperative that our ports and marine transportation infrastructure have the capacity to handle this increase in a manner that protects and conserves critical coastal and marine resources through environmentally sound planning for port expansion, dredge material disposal, and management of ballast water and other discharges from commercial ships," the Commission writes, adding that is will be difficult "to determine that the proper balance between economic and environmental considerations."

The United States has had trouble outlining and addressing ocean issues because of "jurisdictional and legal confusion and ambiguity" in coastal laws, the report states. "Multiple use problems are exacerbated by growing litigation, regulatory confusion and delay, and uncoordinated policy," the Commission writes. "Individuals who work and live on the water, from fishers to corporations, face a Byzantine patchwork of federal and state authorities and regulations."


Warming oceans could signal more global warming on the way. (Photo courtesy Ocean-Atmosphere Carbon Exchange Study)
Other delays in action on ocean problems may be caused by disagreement on the science behind ocean issues, the Commission argues. For example, while the Bush administration continues to equivocate about the threats posed to the U.S. by global warming, the Commission on Ocean Policy states flatly that "climate change affects everyone and all aspects of our economy."

"Although the oceans clearly play a crucial role in controlling climatic events, this is not understood in sufficient detail to predict or take action in a timely fashion on rapid climate change events and their impacts," the report notes, adding that the Commission is still exploring what can be done to strengthen scientific understanding of climate change to lead to more informed public policy actions.

"Through greater understanding of the oceans, we can better position ourselves to predict droughts, with their devastating effect on agriculture; hurricanes and storm surges that affect coastal areas; and public health threats now shown to emanate from a warming ocean," the Commission writes. "With modern technological advances, we have the opportunity, urged by many presenters, to develop truly integrated ocean and coastal observing and prediction systems that are more sophisticated than ever before ... but will we seize the opportunity?"

One of the Commission's goals over the next year will be to begin to detail and education, management and investment strategy to help policymakers understand how human actions affect the oceans, and how the oceans may in turn affect human lives.


Uneven management has led to the continuing depletion of resources like this school of snapper off the Hawaiian coast. (Photo courtesy Hawai’i Undersea Research Laboratory)
The recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy have the potential to create important changes in ocean laws and policies. The last congressionally authorized commission to review and make recommendations for a national ocean policy was convened under the Marine Resources and Engineering Development Act of 1966.

That commission, commonly referred to as the Stratton Commission after its chair, Julius Stratton, issued a far reaching report on January 9, 1969, just before President Richard Nixon took office. The report's recommendations prompted the formation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1970, and the passage of Coastal Zone Management Act and the Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976.

The current U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy was created by the Oceans Act of 2000, signed by President Bill Clinton in August 2000. President Bush appointed the 16 members of the Commission last year, based on nominations from Congress and the White House.


Ocean pollution has led to beach and fisheries closures. Here, oyster and clam beds at Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in South Carolina are closed due to fecal coliform bacteria, an indicator of sewage pollution. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
So far, the Commission is "optimistic that it can provide answers to many serious challenges," according to the midterm report. "Yet it is concerned whether there is a sufficient sense of national urgency to implement a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy to address these challenges."

The Commission says there is a need for "heightened public awareness about the oceans and the consequences of the policy choices the nation faces."

To read the midterm report online, click here.