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U.S. Panel Calls for Drastic Changes in Government Management of Oceans
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
April 21, 2004

WASHINGTON--Citing increasing pressures from pollution, overfishing and residential development, a federal commission on Tuesday called for sweeping changes in how the U.S. government manages the oceans, including allocating billions of dollars in gas and oil royalties for ocean preservation.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, created by Congress in 2000 and appointed by President Bush, concluded that man-made problems have seriously jeopardized the health of the oceans, from huge and toxic algae blooms to depletion of fish stocks. Only a major overhaul of federal policy, detailed in a 413-page report, could reverse the trend, the commission found.

While the report focused primarily on oceans, the commission also addressed government oversight of the Great Lakes, urging a variety of steps to curb problems caused by pollution and invasive species such as the zebra mussel.

"If our report is adopted, the payoff will be great," said retired Adm. James Watkins, chairman of the committee. "It's now obvious that ocean resources are not limitless, nor are ocean waters capable of continual self-cleansing. The point is this: It's up to us to find ways to use and enjoy the oceans in a sustainable way."

To attack the problem, the commission said the federal government must work to streamline ocean management, which is now spread among "a confusing array of agencies at the federal, state and local levels."

The report also called for a fundamental change in how the government addresses ocean problems, urging "ecosystem-based management" -- focusing on entire regions -- rather than the current policy of addressing each species or habitat in isolation.

The commission recommended creation of a National Ocean Council, to be chaired by an assistant to the president, and for doubling the amount of federal funding for ocean research.

The report was the government's first comprehensive look at ocean policy since the Stratton Commission issued "Our Nation and the Sea" more than 30 years ago. Since then, "more than 37 million people, 19 million homes and countless businesses have been added to coastal areas," the report said, noting that the nation's reliance on offshore oil and gas, marine transportation and coastal tourism have also increased.

"These developments, however, come with costs, and we are only now discovering the extent of those costs in terms of depleted resources, lost habitat and polluted waters," the report said.

Several environmental groups hailed the report and said it represented a mandate for Congress and the president to act.

Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation, said the timing was perfect because there is legislation pending in Congress to restore the Great Lakes.

"We need to do something, and we need to do something fast, or we are going to spend many times more to clean up existing messes," Davis said, but "a report like this can't mandate political will. At the end of the day, that's what we need more than anything else."

Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, said the commission's report highlighted many of the same themes that were outlined in a Pew Oceans Commission report in 2003.

"You have both of them basically saying we have serious degradation, we need to act," Chasis said.

The commission's report will be sent to the nation's governors for comment. Once the governors' comments are reviewed, a final version of the report will be sent to the president and Congress.

Watkins, the commission chairman, made a point of saying that there were no "unfunded mandates" in the report, which would require states to pay for reforms. Rather, the commission laid out a funding scheme by year to detail how the federal government could pay for the plan, which includes 54 recommendations for Congress, 69 for the president, 125 for federal agencies and 13 for states, Watkins said.

The commission calls for $4 billion a year from unallocated oil and gas royalties from off-shore drilling to be placed into an Ocean Policy Trust Fund. The commission estimates it would cost $1.3 billion to implement its recommendations in the first year, $2.4 billion the second and $3.2 billion in subsequent years.

"Will this be tough to sell?" Watkins asked. "You better believe it. But we're going to go for it."

Ted Beattie, president and chief executive officer of the John G. Shedd Aquarium and a member of the commission, said a crucial aspect of the report is a recommendation to educate the public on the perilous condition of the oceans and the Great Lakes.

"There hasn't been a strong PR effort to tell people what the situation is," Beattie said, adding, "If we don't get after these problems, they are only going to get worse."

This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws.

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