Federal study calls for bold initiative on oceans

Government is urged to halt long-term decline

April 21, 2004|By Joe Haberstroh | Joe Haberstroh,NEWSDAY

A federal commission yesterday urged the appointment of a National Ocean Council to oversee a far-reaching initiative to better safeguard coastal communities and water quality, improve management of the nation's $28 billion fishing industry and double the public dollars spent on coastal and oceanographic research.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, noting that 51 percent of the country's population lives on or near the coast and coastal watersheds, also offered moderately tough suggestions for curbing overfishing that depleted fish stocks worldwide. It offered similarly tough proposals to fight nutrient pollution that threatens to strangle the ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound and has created a huge seasonal dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The draft report of the commission, released at a Washington, D.C., news conference, drew intense interest because it represents the government's first comprehensive review of U.S. ocean policy in 35 years.

The commission seeks to drastically raise the profile of oceans issues on the national agenda. It suggests that a "National Ocean Framework" be established under the guidance of the ocean council, whose members would be led by a special assistant to the president.

"The existing, fragmented system for managing our oceans and coast is simply not up to the task," said the commission's chairman, retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Watkins. "An historic opportunity is now at hand to make changes."

The cost of the commission's recommendations is about $1.3 billion in the first year, $2.4 billion in the second year, and $3.2 billion annually thereafter. About $650 million would be spent each year to operate a new Integrated Ocean Observing System, a network of environmental sensors mounted on buoys, ships and satellites. To pay for its plan, the commission wants to use some of the revenue the federal government receives from offshore oil and gas exploration.

The report marks the second time in a year that a high-level commission has weighed in on ocean policy. In June, the independent Pew Oceans Commission called for a better-coordinated approach to management of the seas. Although the reports differ - the Pew commissioners called for a system of protected areas where no commercial fishing is allowed, while the U.S. commission does not - members of both groups yesterday sought to emphasize their common goals of eliminating policy overlaps at various federal regulatory agencies, generating more investment in research, and promoting fisheries management based on a better understanding of the ecosystems along the coasts.

"We have clearly arrived pretty much at a consensus of what to do," said Leon Panetta, chairman of the Pew commission. Panetta said he and Watkins have discussed a joint meeting of the commissions.

The U.S. commission's report noted that, even as the oceans contribute more than 2.5 million jobs and $117 billion annually to the economy, Americans remain unenlightened about basic ocean facts. Commission member Robert Ballard, who provided the first video images of the sunken Titanic, suggested that improved math and science education about the ocean would inspire a "widespread stewardship ethic."

"Nearly 60 percent of Americans do not realize that more plants and animals live in the ocean than on land," Ballard said at the conference.

The report's call to tie ocean policy to a deeper understanding of ecosystems pleased scientists who have long advocated the approach.

"The interconnections in these ecosystems are complex and not well understood," said David Conover, dean of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook University. "It isn't going to work to manage striped bass, for example, in isolation. How do nitrogen inputs up the Hudson affect striped bass? How do changes in striped bass affect menhaden?"

The commission's 514-page report also wades into the arcana of fisheries management. It advocates opening membership of the appointed, regional fisheries councils, which set harvests for different species of fish, to go beyond the recreational and commercial fisheries' interests that are actually governed by the councils. Only a handful of people from outside these interests can claim membership on the councils.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The New York Times News Service contributed to this story.

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