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New wave of ocean policy coming

Stricter regulations aim to protect marine ecosystems


12th April 2004

Pew policy recommendations

The Pew Oceans Commission, a non-profit conservation organization, conducted a three-year study into the state of U.S. oceans, issuing its findings last year. It recommended five major reforms in U.S. ocean policy, the first of which is nearly complete. The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy will likely address similar points, but would ultimately have the weight of law to carry through its recommendations.

The Pew Oceans Commission recommended:

Establish a national ocean policy to protect, maintain and restore the health of marine ecosystems and guide their sustainable use. This will require the enactment of federal legislation that establishes an enforceable ocean policy and a process for carrying it out.

Realign institutional structures to ensure federal agencies and programs are carrying out the national ocean policy. To do this, the commission recommends the establishment of an independent national oceans agency and the consolidation of a number of federal ocean programs within it.

Manage marine resources on an ecosystem basis. To accomplish this requires a new, stronger partnership among the federal government, the states, Native American tribes and others with jurisdiction over marine resources.

Acknowledge and address the direct connection between our activities on land and the health of the oceans.

Reform federal fisheries management to require sustainable use of living ocean resources.

Recognize that fish stocks are part of a larger ecosystem, not individual commodities, and they must be managed as part of this greater whole.

PEW OCEANS COMMISSION To address what many are calling a looming crisis in America's oceans, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy is poised to release the first revision of federal ocean policy in 35 years.

But when the preliminary document hits the desks of President Bush and governors around the nation on April 20, it won't be a "perfect" document, according to commission member Frank Muller-Karger, professor of marine science at the University of South Florida.

"But I think it will be a really good document that will help take us where we need to go," Muller-Karger said.

Where that is, none of the commissioners are allowed to talk about until the report's release date. But speaking in generalities, Muller-Karger said the report's emphasis is on "ecosystem management and sustainable development."

And for the first time ever, the ocean policy will take into consideration the huge impact placed on coastal waters by inland development and runoff pollution.

That's fitting, according to scientists, since one of the greatest threats to the health of the Gulf of Mexico come from fertilizers spread across America's Heartland that then drain into the Mississippi River.

"The agriculture and sewage discharges - everything - ends up on the Coast," Muller-Karger said. "You do have coastal problems, particularly in Mississippi and Louisiana because of the nutrients. I think if we manage it right, we can control it."

Sharon Walker, administrator for the University of Southern Mississippi's J.L. Scott Aquarium, was one of 26 from around the country who sat on the commission's scientific advisory panel.

While her testimony emphasized the need for stronger educational efforts, she pointed out the incredible march of families to the coasts.

Coastal counties are home to more than half of the U.S. population. Another 25 million people are expected to move to U.S. coasts by 2015, according to the Pew Oceans Commission.

"Look at the pressure that is putting on that naturally regulated system. Most of our fisheries are in crisis," Walker said.

In the Gulf of Mexico, the grouper is one fish that has seen better days.

According to the Marine Fish Conservation Network, 37 of the 85 species of grouper are now considered threatened. Snapper is getting to a similar point, Muller-Karger said.

"There's no question that in the Gulf of Mexico there are some fisheries that are under pressure, that are overfished," Muller-Karger said. "The way that we manage fisheries is not perfect. All the fisheries need to be evaluated in a better way."

How that is done will depend largely on the document coming out for public review next week.

As directed by the Oceans Act of 2000, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy will take on many topics, from "ocean governance to the stewardship of marine resources and pollution prevention to enhancing and supporting marine science, commerce and transportation," a commission press release states.

Because of the enormity of the task, Muller-Karger admits the document won't be "perfect."

But, he says, it will "nudge the country to go in a different direction than we are now."

Walker predicts it will be a "very strong document and very proactive in their recommendations."

And while many commission reports "just sit around and gather dust" after they hit the Oval Office, Melissa Metcalfe, regional organizer for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, feels confident there is sufficient pressure to push Bush to take action.

"Because there has been so much focus on this already, and for the simple fact that fishermen are returning to port empty-handed, it's reached the point where we really can't ignore it," she said.

The public comment period on the preliminary report will run from April 20 to May 21. Comments can be submitted by e-mail, fax or regular mail. The report and detailed instructions for submitting comments will be available for download from the commission's Web site,, on April 20.