NOAA's Ark

The oceans seem so vast and complex that it's little wonder the US government scatters its responsibility for them across a vast bureaucracy. Problems such as overfishing or sewage discharge from cruise ships are parceled out to a confusing array of agencies.

Given the oceans' increasingly fragile state, however, the US needs to better focus its attention and resources.

That's the basic recommendation of the US Commission on Ocean Policy in a preliminary, 500-page report this week. The panel, set up by Congress in 2000 and appointed by President Bush, calls for more than 250 reforms but none more meaningful than to give greater authority to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA, known more for its weather forecasting than anything else, gets lost in the Commerce Department, and lacks the legislative ballast of an "organic act" to give it permanent status in yearly funding.

The 16-member federal panel also suggested the creation of an ocean policy trust fund that would funnel billions from taxes on offshore oil and gas drilling - as well as new uses such as wind farms - to saving the oceans, through environmental action, exploration, and education.

Such spending would pay for itself through improvements such as cleaner beaches, sustainable fish yields, and better control of invasive exotic species. (Ocean-related employment is more than 11 times as large as US agricultural employment.)

NOAA would be the best distributor of this money, given its fine record on ocean work. Congress should move quickly to give it more authority.

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