updated 9/18/2009 11:37:33 AM ET 2009-09-18T15:37:33

The Obama administration on Thursday released the first glimpse of a plan to strengthen the way the nation manages the oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes.

President Barack Obama's Ocean Policy Task Force — comprised of 24 officials from the U.S. Department of Interior to the U.S. Navy — recommended creating a new National Ocean Council with power to coordinate and hold accountable myriad federal agencies in conservation and marine planning efforts.

"Right now (ocean policy) is done on a piecemeal basis, one agency regulating fisheries, one shipping, one water quality, another national security and there's no real mechanized thinking on how sectors interact with each other," said Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a task force member.

"Today is a historic day. For the first time, we as a nation say loudly and clearly that healthy oceans matter," she said.

The president created the task force to coordinate federal response to pollution from industrial and commercial activities, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, among other problems.

The new National Ocean Council would replace the Committee on Ocean Policy, instituted by President George W. Bush in 2004, which the task force called "moderately effective."

"(The report) delivers on President Obama's request for recommendations that will move this country towards a more robust national policy for our oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes," said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Beyond creating the new ocean council, the task force identified a number of priorities for improving the health of the seas and Great Lakes. Among them is to improve the ability of coastal communities and the Arctic to deal with the effects of climate change, especially rising sea levels and higher ocean acidification due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The council would help coastal communities — whether it be a struggling fishing industry in Northern California or a hurricane-damaged area on the Gulf Coast — through better coordination and strategic planning.

The report also recommends that the federal government view all ocean policy with a "ecosystem-based approach," meaning decisions would be made with an emphasis on understanding how all life would be affected in a given area. Officials said this would be a key philosophical shift in the nation's approach.

The report is short on details about how and when these goals would be achieved, but environmental groups applauded the White House's efforts, calling it is an important first step in achieving badly needed reform.

"It's the first time that an administration has identified a series of laudable goals for managing the nation's marine environment," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group.

"Runoff of fertilizer is really an issue for the Department of Agriculture, transportation runoff from highways and roads is the Department of Transportation ... municipal discharges from sewer systems is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So when you're proposing trying to manage an area of the ocean, you're trying to take into account all of these variables in a very complicated process," Reichert said.

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