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Shoring up marine ecosystems
By Joan Lowy

Scripps Howard News Service

14th April 2004

In 1969, when the last U.S. ocean commission filed its report, the emphasis was on encouraging the exploitation of oceans for their bounty of food, minerals and other resources.

But the world and its oceans have changed.

Next week, when the congressionally chartered U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy releases the first federal report in 35 years on the state of the nation's ocean areas, the picture it paints is likely to be grim. This time, the emphasis is expected to be on how to prevent ocean ecosystems from collapsing under the pressure of commercial and industrial activity on land and sea.

"Now we have a whole different scenario where we are managing in the face of scarcity," said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Conservation Network.

The problems plaguing U.S. ocean areas could hardly be more dramatic:

One-third of the nation's fish stocks for which the government has data are overexploited. New England has struggled with the collapse of its traditional cod, haddock and flounder fisheries. In other regions, overfished stocks include sharks, swordfish, monkfish, rockfishes and bluefin tuna.

Fishing techniques also indiscriminately capture marine life, including sea turtles and dolphins. Scientists estimate that fishermen discard about 25 percent of what they catch worldwide. If the same rate holds true for the United States, some 2.3 billion pounds of marine life - often dead or injured - are tossed back into the ocean each year.

Urban runoff from coastal development and nitrogen fertilizer from inland farms and suburban lawns are sucking oxygen out of the oceans, creating huge "dead zones" almost wholly devoid of life.

The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River covered 8,500 square miles two years ago.

Beach closures due to pollution are increasing dramatically. Studies indicate that people who swim, surf and otherwise play in the ocean often expose themselves to a teeming soup of pathogens.

Coastal wetlands that filter pollution and serve as breeding grounds for many marine species are being filled in for development. U.S. coastal areas account for less than 10 percent of the nation's land area, but are home to half the population. Over 40 percent of new commercial and residential development is along coasts.

Increases in trade have also boosted the number of foreign species arriving in the ballast water of cargo ships, leading to serious disruptions of local ecosystems. U.S. trade is expected to increase 30 percent by the end of this decade, with nearly all of it shipped over oceans.

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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