The commission report will be the second major American oceans report in less than a year. In June, the independent, bipartisan Pew Oceans Commission released a report warning that the nation's coastal areas are in crisis.
The Pew report was criticized by industry and some members of Congress as too dire and biased in favour of conservation over economic considerations. However, the 16-member ocean policy commission was appointed by President Bush and tilts toward industry and the GOP. If the two panels reach similar conclusions, as is expected, pressure on Congress and the White House to act will mount.
The members of the two commissions have had a cordial working relationship. Retired Navy Adm. James Watkins, head of the ocean policy commission, attended the release of the report by the Pew group, which was chaired by Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta.
"We're drawing on the same set of facts," said Christophe Tulou, who was the executive director of the Pew commission. "Our expectation is a common recognition of a crisis in our oceans and some striking similarity in the basic need for ocean policy reform."
Like the Pew commission, the ocean policy commission is expected to recommend that Congress pass ocean-protection legislation similar in magnitude to such major environmental laws as the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act.
"We both agree that the management for our oceans is a crazy quilt of laws and regulations put together to address individual crises as they have cropped up over the years," said Roger Rufe, a retired Coast Guard admiral and Pew panel member.
The ocean policy commission is also expected to propose a new council within the White House to coordinate federal activities that affect the oceans.
One difference is that the Pew commission recommended gathering the dozens of offices and agencies spread throughout the federal bureaucracy that deal with ocean-related issues into a single, independent agency.
Ocean policy commissioners - who have discussed the likely thrust of their report in public appearances over the past six months - have apparently decided that an ocean agency is politically untenable given the current opposition in Congress to the creation of new federal agencies.
The commission is also expected to emphasize managing oceans on an ecosystem-wide basis instead of addressing problems one species at a time. One of the most sensitive issues will be the commission recommendation on who should decide limits on how much fish can be caught and how fishing harvests should be allocated.
Currently, eight regional fisheries councils dominated by the commercial fishing industry make those decisions. They are supposed to base decisions on what size of catch scientists say can be taken and still sustain fishing stocks. But environmentalists say the councils frequently ignore scientists' advice and allow more fishing than is sustainable.
"Decisions on oceans management, particularly in the fisheries arena, are made mainly based on short-term economic considerations," said Rufe, president of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group.
Environmentalists want the commission to recommend that decisions on fishing limits be taken away from fisheries councils and given to independent scientific committees. The councils could still decide how best to divvy up rights to the catch among commercial fishing interests.
The industry has been lobbying to retain the fisheries councils in close to their present structure.
"We're hoping that the conservation objectives don't reduce our harvests to the detriment of fishing communities," said Linda Candler, vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association for the commercial fishing industry.
"The current fisheries management system is certainly not perfect, but it's working rather well," Candler said. "Rather than an overhaul, it just needs some fine-tuning. We're hoping that is what will come out in this report."
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