updated 1/30/2007 1:07:10 PM ET 2007-01-30T18:07:10

The United States made modest progress on protecting its oceans last year, but still needs to boost funding for desperately needed reforms, a commission on ocean policy said Tuesday.

Overall, the U.S. earned a “C-” grade from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a collaboration between the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the privately funded Pew Oceans Commission. That was a slight improvement over a “D+” grade on the commission’s report card for 2005.

President Bush last week proposed an 8 percent increase in the $1.75 billion federal budget for coastal and marine conservation programs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would get most of the additional $143 million budget request.

Panel leaders praised the states as “important champions” for oceans in 2006, citing initiatives in New York and Washington as well as regional pacts on ocean management for the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.

“In the race to preserve our oceans, the states are outdistancing the federal government,” said Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff who heads the Pew Oceans Commission and is co-chair of the Joint Initiative.

The joint commission praised Congress and the Bush administration for winning passage of “long-overdue” federal fisheries reform, but warned that more needs to be done. Bush’s designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument will help protect nearly 140,000 square miles of islands, atolls and oceans, the panel added.

But strides made last year to safeguard the nation’s imperiled oceans were undercut by a lack of funding at all levels of government, the panel warned. Education, research and international leadership also need to be substantially improved, the commission said.

“Our expert commissions have told Congress and the administration what they can do to pick up the pace and immediately begin to reverse ocean decline,” Panetta said. “To bring this grade up in 2007, the bottom line is that more needs to be done if we are to protect our ocean resources.”

Oceans should also play a central role in the national debate over climate change, the panel noted.

“Addressing climate change is a high priority for most Americans, and although the climate and oceans are inexorably intertwined, the critical role oceans play in climate change is seldom addressed,” said James Watkins, a retired Navy admiral who heads the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and co-chairs the Joint Initiative.

The full report card is online at www.jointoceancommission.org.

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