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Ocean blueprint expected to stir up a storm

The U.S. policy statement is likely to be a jumping-off point for legislation and reorganization.

BY Cory Reiss

Herald Tribune

19th April 2004

The first federal blueprint for U.S. ocean policy in 35 years will drop like a stone Tuesday into debates about fisheries, pollution, commerce and conservation.

Anyone who lives on a coast, makes a living on the ocean or has a stake in battles over marine environments could feel the ripples for decades.

Environmentalists and lawmakers said last week that they are prepared to embrace the draft of a report by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy -- if only because it is expected to spark years of debate on Capitol Hill.
Environmental groups have made clear that they want the report to recommend more regulation and reorganization than they are likely to see.

"They'll probably criticize it for not being aggressive enough," said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, which includes fishing interests and environmentalists. He said his group is reserving judgment until the draft report is released on Tuesday.

The new report, said to be about 450 pages, will recommend policy changes and federal restructuring to address issues that include declining fish stocks, increasing pollution, booming ship traffic, decades of migration to coastal communities, offshore energy production and protection of endangered species.

The last such report in 1969 spawned landmark laws and a new agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ocean management issues can be complex and emotional. Fishermen, for example, worry about their livelihood, and about conservationists who sometimes put sea turtles first. Coastal communities thrive on development but see their beaches closed because of pollution.

Environmental groups say that even if the government report falls short of their hopes, it will validate their message: That the oceans have big problems that demand bold action.

"We're seeing some major changes in what was thought to be an inexhaustible and indestructible resource," said Sarah Chasis, director of water and coastal programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need to be better stewards."

Tale of two reports

Last week, however, some Republicans interpreted the report differently. Republican aides briefed on the report painted it as moderate in tone compared with environmentalist alarms. One House Resources Committee aide emphasized a statement to this effect: "We can't decide we want to have pristine environments and throw man out."

Another report released last June by the privately funded and conservation-oriented Pew Oceans Commission is a lingering factor.

That report is likely to come into play when the government commission, which includes commercial interests and is more mindful of political realities, offers different recommendations.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-California, who is chairman of the House Resources Committee, dismisses the Pew report.

"Lawmakers throughout the country recognize the difference between a bipartisan government report and a political advocacy piece," said Pombo, a frequent antagonist of environmental groups. "Frankly, it's obvious that the scope of this report will leave the Pew report drowning in its wake."

The U.S. commission, led by retired Navy Admiral James Watkins, who was energy secretary under President George H.W. Bush, held 15 public meetings and gathered volumes of research. The task for the panel of 16 presidential appointees was so huge the deadline was delayed three times after the original due date last March.

State governors will be allowed to comment before a final version is submitted to the president, who then must respond with his action plan.

Environmental groups and their foes said they expected more similarities than differences between the government and Pew reports. Some differences will be matters of degrees while others will be significant.

"The emphasis might be different, but I don't think that the facts are going to be questioned by the commission," said Kumar Mahadevan, president of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. He said he expected the U.S. report to be more oriented to commerce than the Pew report was.

The U.S. report will not call for NOAA, an agency within the Department of Commerce, to immediately be made independent as the Environmental Protection Agency was. The Pew Report recommended that.

A 1969 government report recommended a powerful and independent agency, but President Nixon created a weaker NOAA than envisioned and tucked it inside the Commerce Department.

The new report also isn't expected to call for oceans to be zoned for specific uses the way land is zoned for commercial or residential use, as the Pew commission did. And it will not seek to remove as much authority from regional fishery management councils as the Pew report would.

Still, the U.S. report is expected to seek changes in those areas and many others. Fishery councils would be tweaked and science would trump quota allocations. The report may recommend that a White House ocean policy office and advisory council be created and that NOAA be strengthened.

"I think everyone is going to look at the report and find something they like," said the House Resources aide. "I kind of expect a lot of bills."

Art of the possible

Many insiders say the report is bound by political and economic realities. For example, some say creating an independent agency isn't politically possible. The report also is expected to discuss costs of proposals, which the Pew commission didn't consider.

"You're living with the art of the possible. You do what you can do," said Margaret Spring, senior counsel to Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee who wrote the 2000 legislation creating the U.S. commission.

The report is expected to emphasize more funding for ocean research and education campaigns, which some environmentalists both praise and fear. Roger Rufe, president of the Ocean Conservancy and a member of the Pew commission, said he's concerned about "fiddling while Rome burns."

"The report itself may not be substantive enough to make it a vehicle for real change to ocean governance," he said, "or some of the recommendations might be latched on to as, 'Let's just study the issue more.'"