Federal review of ocean policy calls for more spending and regulation

Apr 21, 2004 02:00 AM

The first in-depth federal review of US ocean policy in 35 years is calling for billions of dollars in spending and more environmentally based regulation in hopes of reversing decades of marine exploitation and mismanagement. The long-awaited blueprint released by the US Commission on Ocean Policy recommends a doubling of research funds and a network of ocean observatories that will help better track both the climate and the sea's environment.
The 16-member panel calls for a new national council on marine policy as well as volunteer groups to help manage the competing uses of the sea from fishing to oil exploration.

The eventual $ 3 bn annual cost for the massive undertaking would be paid out of offshore oil and gas royalties and by other future uses, such as developing drugs from marine life, known as "bio prospecting."
"Our oceans and coast are in serious trouble," said retired Admiral James D. Watkins, chairman of the commission that spent 2 years preparing the report for Congress. "We have an historic opportunity to make a positive and lasting change in the way we manage them before it is too late."

The report was released as the 4.5 mm square miles of oceans within 200 miles of the United States face a modern day gold rush as technological improvements allow businesses to tap into more ocean resources. Since the last federal ocean review, in 1969, which led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coastal Zone Management Act, the once seemingly vast US coastal waters have become much more crowded.
Today, oil and gas drilling takes place farther offshore, and the nation's first offshore wind farm has been proposed in Nantucket Sound. Meanwhile, medical bio prospecting ventures and desalination plants are being proposed all over the country even as fishermen exhaust one fishing ground after another.

But federal policy has not kept pace: The oceans are managed under a mishmash of 140 laws, involving more than a dozen federal agencies that often don't consult with one another.
Watkins's commission called on Congress to redefine the mission of NOAA to manage the ocean based on ecology rather than particular industries. The agency would be required to see whether new projects fit into the intended use of an entire ocean ecosystem, which could encompass thousands of square miles and involve competing uses such as whale protection and shipping.

The report focuses heavily on coastal pollution, suggesting new volunteer regional ocean councils to help deal with chemical and other types of pollution that drain from land into the ocean. The report echoes many sentiments expressed in an oceans report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and released last year.
Cruise ship companies and recreational fishermen may oppose some of the recommendations, which include better regulation of cruise ship waste and requiring all saltwater anglers to be licensed. Some environmentalists criticized the report, noting it did not highlight the need for Marine Protected Areas, a type of ocean park where fish populations can recover.

In addition, some activists said, the report doesn't give enough legal power to the volunteer councils that will set ocean policy.
"If we are really going to be taking critical next steps, then we need to be serious and give these regional councils full authority to develop comprehensive management plans," said Ted Morton, federal policy director of Oceana, an environmental ocean advocacy group. Still, if some of the report's recommendations are adopted, they could reverberate in New England, especially for fishermen.

Under one suggestion, local fish councils would be required to set harvest limits based on what their science and statistical committees say. In fact, fishermen or scientists with formal ties to the industry would be barred from serving on the committees to avoid conflict of interest.
"In New England, it's painfully clear the current system has allowed the council to ignore the best available science... [leading] to widespread and serious depletion of fish stocks," said Priscilla Brooks, marine project director for the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental advocacy group.

The US commission is also calling for deep changes in the stagnant funding for ocean research, which has fallen from 7 % of federal research dollars to 3.5 % over the past 25 years. The report calls for ocean and coastal research funding to double in the next five years from its current $ 650 mm allotment. In addition, it calls for a $ 246 mm eventual annual investment in ocean education. The report also discusses the need for an ocean observatory system that could improve weather forecasting.
The most difficult part may be tapping into an estimated $ 4 bn from oil and gas royalties or future fees generated from new ocean uses. Most of the royalties currently go directly into the US Treasury each year.

Source: The Boston Globe
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