American coasts and oceans are in deep trouble. Overfishing, pollution, and runaway development are seriously threatening the health of marine and coastal ecosystems and the nearly $800 billion in annual economic activity they underpin - from shipping and commercial fishing to recreational boating.
For years, scientists have accumulated evidence showing that, despite progress in other areas, these problems are getting worse. The issue now facing the United States is what to do about them.
The nation could dive in head first, overhauling the way it treats its fisheries, coasts, and oceans. Or it could wade into the shallows with a collection of small steps. The release this week of a much-anticipated report - the second major report on ocean policy in 10 months - is pushing the issue into the limelight. Legislation to implement some of its more than 250 recommendations is already under way.
"This is a crossroads moment" for the future of America's stewardship of its oceans, says Adm. (ret.) James Watkins, chairman of the US Commission on Ocean Policy. After 2-1/2 years of study, the 16-membercommission is urging many steps to reduce ocean pollution and rampant development along the coasts.
The report first goes to governors for a 30-day review and commentary. After that, the tome heads to the White House and Congress. The report and a similar study from the Pew Oceans Commission released last June already have inspired at least 10 bills on Capitol Hill that range from increasing support for ocean exploration to requiring cruise ships to curb their pollution. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in the House is preparing to draft a package that embraces many of the reports' recommendations. And lawmakers in California reportedly have taken up the Pew panel's gauntlet and introduced a state version of its national ocean policy act.
"There's a lot of interest in this on the Hill," says Sarah Chasis a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.
Either report standing alone would represent a significant statement on the status of ocean resources and the US approach to managing them, analysts say. The message packs even more punch coming from two authoritative groups. The Pew Oceans Commission grew out of a group already aligned with environmental causes. The US Commission on Ocean Policy came out of congressional legislation signed by President Clinton, and its membership was picked by President Bush and members of Congress.
The Commission on Ocean Policy gives high priority to changing the way marine resources are managed. It calls on the government to shift to schemes based on natural ecosystem boundaries instead of political boundaries. To better coordinate these efforts, the panel calls for an ocean council within the Office of the President. The commissioners call for strengthening the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's role in marine affairs, in part by having Congress clearly lay out NOAA's duties.
The panel recommends that the regional fisheries management councils stop setting commercial fishing quotas. Instead, scientists and statisticians would determine catch limits and leave it to management councils to allocate the catch among fishing interests.
The commissioners also hold that regulatory decisions should be based on the best science, and thus have called for a doubling of the marine research budget over the next five years to more than $1.3 billion a year.
Overall, the panel estimates that its recommendations would cost $1.3 billion the first year, and gradually rise to $3.2 billion a year. Funding would initially come from unallocated money the Treasury collects from oil and gas operations on the outer continental shelf, estimated at $4 billion to $5 billion a year. The panel foresees taxing ocean activities to help pay for the program.
The report has received generally positive reviews from many environmental groups. "This report is significant and cannot be ignored," says David Festa of Environmental Defense.
Others want bolder action. "Many of the recommendations rely too heavily on voluntary approaches and minor changes to existing systems that have proved ineffective," says Ted Morton of the advocacy group Oceana. He and others prefer the approaches in the Pew report - such as passing a national ocean policy act that would enact key recommendations and give regional ocean management councils more clout.
Yet chairman Watkins says the commission's list represents a politically feasible "step-by- step approach that we think is very reasonable."