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Oceans in crisis,will Bush step up?

President Bush's oceans advisory panel is about to issue a report calling for a completely new approach to protection, but already some experts feel the administration won't have an appetite for reform.
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President Bush's oceans advisory panel is about to issue a report calling for a completely new approach to protecting marine life, but already the feeling among some experts is that the president won't have much of an appetite for heeding the advice.

What makes this report so special is that it's the biggest government review of oceans policy in 35 years. The last report saw oceans as farmland waiting to be harvested and fish stocks were pretty much managed like cattle.

Since then, many species of fish as well as sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals have become threatened or even endangered -- not only from overfishing but also fishing techniques that accidentally catch unwanted marine life.

The Commission on Ocean Policy -- whose 16 members were appointed by the president and Congress -- sat through 15 meetings and 440 presentations in the more than three years of its mandate.

The panel's preliminary report, set to be released on April 20, is expected to make an economic case for better protection, using references like "restoration of lost economic value." But at its heart is a shift in strategy from poorly regulated harvesting of the oceans to a stewardship approach that looks at entire ecosystems instead of simply tracking individual species of fish to see how their stocks are holding up.

Based on public comments so far, the commission's recommendations will include:

  • Changing the existing species-by-species management approach to one that encompasses entire ecosystems. For example, tracking not just swordfish populations but also the impact of that fishing industry on sea turtles, which are often caught on lines or in nets.
  • Crafting a National Ocean Policy spearheaded by the president and including a special assistant to the president, a White House office on ocean policy and a federal ocean council. The White House office would streamline policy that is now shared by 10 federal agencies and 28 coastal states.
  • Creating regional councils that would experiment and implement locally, as opposed to the existing top-down approach from Washington.
  • Doubling federal funding for oceans research, which now stands at less than four percent of the overall federal research budget.

Politics of fish
The commission will seek input from governors and the public before submitting the proposals to the president, but other national issues, and the 2004 presidential election, could easily bury the report.

"You need political will to do it," commission member William Ruckelshaus told researchers at an oceans workshop last month, but given other issues out there "I don't think it's a high priority for this administration."

An expert at public policy -- he was the first Environmental Protection Agency chief when President Nixon created the post and returned later under President Reagan -- Ruckelshaus said it will take "a public (that) gets riled up and a leader who responds."

"When the public gets excited about something change takes place," he added.

The man who ran President Clinton's White House agreed on the need for an ocean policy overhaul -- as well as the obstacles ahead. "It's crazy right now how these systems are managed" by different agencies and 60 committees in Congress, Leon Panetta, Clinton's chief of staff, told the oceans workshop.

On top of that, "it's very tough to get the attention of policy makers on this issue," said Panetta, more recently chair of a nonprofit foundation's panel that concluded the oceans are near collapse. The public "needs to get angry about what's happening," he said, "then and only then" will policy change.

Poll: Public feels powerless
A recent public survey found, however, that Americans are of two minds on ocean conservation. While 80 percent felt humans are harming marine life, only a third felt their individual actions could make a significant difference.

Taken for the American Association for the Advancement of Science,  the survey also found that:

  • Nearly two-thirds said they would eat less of certain kinds of fish if that would help to protect species.
  • There was no clear majority for or against tougher government regulations and development limits. Those against were just slightly in the majority.

The association, whose members include the nation's most renowned ocean experts, commissioned the survey as part of a new effort to get public input on research priorities -- an effort that included a first-ever public town hall at the group's annual conference last month in Seattle.

But the mixed survey results, said AAAS chief executive Alan Leshner, emphasize "the need for a broader discussion."

What's not known is whether that discussion will happen before a serious collapse of ocean life that impacts humans. That's the big fear of many scientists like marine biologist Boris Worm, who authored a major study last year that estimated only 10 percent of large predatory fish are left in the ocean.

"The old bottom line was to manage the ocean for profit," he told the oceans workshop. "The new bottom line is to manage the ocean for survival."