U.S. Oceans Commission Wrestles With New Policies

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 27, 2003 (ENS) - After a year of deliberations, the 16 Commissioners of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy agree that the nation's oceans, coasts and marine resources are in trouble. Pollution, coastal development and intensive fishing have caused severe harm to many U.S. marine ecosystems and to the economies of many coastal areas.

But consensus on how to reshape U.S. policies to preserve and revitalize the environmental and economic health of the oceans is proving elusive. At Friday's public meeting, the Commission wrestled with the daunting scope of its task. Its final report is due in less than six months.

"We have a long way to go," said retired U.S. Navy Admiral James D. Watkins, who is the chair of the Commission. "There is a lot of work still to be done."


U.S. Navy Admiral James D. Watkins served as the sixth U.S. Secretary of Energy in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. (Photo courtesy DOE)
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy was created by The Oceans Act of 2000 and formally began its work in September 2001. After hearing from more than 400 presenters in some 10 cities, the Commission completed its fact finding phase in October 2002.

It has a mandate to develop a comprehensive national ocean policy that balances the environmental and economic issues affecting oceans and coastlines. The Commission's final report will be delivered to the President and to leaders of Congress in June 2003.

First on the list of challenges is to develop a new framework for governance of U.S. ocean policy.

Currently, U.S. ocean policy is a haphazard mix of federal, state and local authorities and regulations. More than 60 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee some 20 agencies and permanent commissions with ocean-related activities, which are governed by more than 140 federal ocean related statues. divers

In the Bahamas, divers from the U.S. National Undersearch Research Program's Caribbean Marine Research Center prepare to drill into a coral reef to study climate over the past 20,000 yrs. (Photo courtesy NOAA)

It has been more than 30 years since U.S. ocean policies were comprehensively reviewed.

The Commission's members, who were appointed by President George W. Bush, are scientists, former and current government officials, as well as representatives from commercial shipping and from the offshore oil and gas industry.

Although the Commissioners have agreed the current system is not working, they are struggling to agree on how best to change it.

"Commissions of this type are agents for change," said Commissioner William Ruckelshaus, who is the strategic director of the Madrona Venture Group and chairman of the board of the World Resources Institute. "But there needs to be some kind of institutional underpinning to drive the changes we recommend."


William Ruckelshaus in 1973 when he served for four months as acting director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (Photo courtesy FBI)
Ruckelshaus, an attorney, became the first administrator of the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, and served as its fifth administrator from 1983-5.

The working group chaired by Ruckelshaus is exploring options for governance of ocean policy. At today's meeting he outlined a possible scenario that envisions the creation of an executive office of ocean policy such as an assistant to the President for ocean policy.

This official could spearhead a National Ocean Policy Framework, and serve as chair of a National Ocean Council, which might consist of cabinet secretaries of ocean agencies and directors of independent ocean agencies. The concept of a scientific advisory committee that would advise the National Ocean Council was presented as another element in this framework.


Hammerhead shark off New Jersey coast, 1982. Cmdr. John Bortniak photographed a hammerhead migration of hundreds of hammerheads swimming to northeast. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Regional Ocean Councils could then work with and advise the National Ocean Council on policies and activities to regulate and protect the nation's marine ecosystems and manage its coastal resources.

The overall framework presented by Ruckelshaus was received favorably by the Commissioners, but several outlined concerns over what role or power the advisory committee would have, as well as how agencies who often compete for resources and authority could be encouraged to work together.

"If we have too many committees," asked Commissioner and Alaskan banker Edward Rasmuson, "then what are we streamlining?"

In response to concerns over competing agencies, Ruckelshaus replied, "I don't know how to draft this if people aren't going to act in good faith."

Commissioner Paul Sandifer, the director of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, added that this proposed framework depends entirely on the support of the President.


Paul Sandifer (Photo courtesy South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)
"It is critical that we have some kind of high level attention from the White House," he said.

The involvement by the President will be the primary factor in how effective the Commission's final report ultimately is, a fact not lost on its chairman.

"We have to make a persuasive case to the President that action is needed," added Watkins.

Although charged with providing a path forward for ocean policy at the federal level, the commission is trying to align its recommendations with many of the existing state and local structures that are in place.

"It is absolutely essential to include states and local governments and the people most affected by any changes," Ruckelshaus said.

There does appear to be consensus on the Commission that U.S. ocean policy needs to move toward ecosystem based management, a concept that many environmentalists and conservationists strongly advocate.

Management schemes that focus on specific ecosystems or watersheds are considered an improvement over many current U.S. policies that tend to target very specific threats, such as over fishing of a particular species or oil and gas exploration.


Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
"Watershed management is critical to sound coastal and ocean management," said Commissioner Paul Gaffney, a vice admiral with the U.S. Navy. This idea appears to be shared by Gaffney's fellow Commissioners, but the definition of individual watersheds poses problems, according to Commissioner Christopher Koch.

"Every acre of the U.S. is in a watershed," said Koch, the president and CEO of the World Shipping Council, a trade association for international shipping companies. Precisely what watershed management schemes would be measuring is something on which the Commission has yet to agree.

A vexing issue for the Commission is that it has failed to determine how much the U.S. government currently spends on watershed management, said Sandifer. Without this baseline, it is difficult to estimate the cost of its own proposal, something it has been tasked to provide in the final report. The working group called for a best practices center to be established as a conduit for sharing local watershed management practices that have worked.

"This is an excellent idea," Ruckelshaus said. "We need to highlight the effectiveness of these local successes."

The economic role of shipping poses unique challenges for the Commission. More than 95 percent of the cargo moving into and out of the United States is by ship and estimates are that the total volume of this cargo could double by 2020.

The Commission could call on the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a research and development program in order to form a long term marine transportation plan, which could be integrated into watershed and coastal zone management programs.

International shipping poses health and marine species concerns as well. The transport of ballast water is seen as a transport method for invasive species and infectious disease. Cruise ship waste and ballast water are currently exempt from many provisions of the Clean Water Act.


North Pacific storm waves (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Commission discussed the recommendation that the federal government establish a program that coordinates research and assessment of the links between ocean health and human health. The Commissioners seem to agree that the two are interlinked, but the scope of such a program, as well as where in the government it might reside, could not be determined.

Marine mammals and fish are often injured or killed by international shipping vessels, another issue discussed today. The Commission's report, said Commissioner Andrew Rosenburg, dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hamsphire, "must emphasize solutions to reduce bycatch."

U.S. ocean policy must continue to evolve, several Commissioners agreed, and a key part of this evolution is the investment in linked research and operational earth observation programs. Improved integration among research efforts will add to the body of knowledge about the oceans. It is estimated that some 95 percent of the oceans are unexplored.

"The case has to be made for investment in oceans policy," Watkins said. "We have a major research strategy problem."

The issues discussed today are only a section of the overall set the Commission is exploring, Watkins said. It is set to meet again in early April to complete its exchanges with its working groups. It will then push forward with a draft of the final report.

Conservation groups following the proceedings remain cautiously optimistic, despite concerns over some of the draft language.

"We appreciate what we believe to be the intent of the draft proposals," said Eric Rardin, outreach coordinator for the Marine Conservation Program at the National Environmental Trust.

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said his organization is pleased with many of the recommendations that have been discussed in the Commission's public meetings.

"But we'll have to see what is in the final report," he said.