Citing a "critical" need to protect ocean resources from exploitation and pollution, a presidential commission on Tuesday urged President Bush and Congress to double spending on ocean research, create a National Ocean Council at the White House, and earmark billions in offshore oil and gas drilling royalties to a federal oceans trust fund.
The first sweeping review of U.S. ocean policy in 35 years, the report follows three years of work by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.
“This is a crossroads moment, a moment of historic opportunity,” said James Watkins, the retired admiral who chairs the commission created by Congress and the White House in 2000. He said it was important for federal government to require the new ocean protections but “avoid creating unfunded mandates” passed on to states and local governments.
The Ocean Policy Trust Fund — similar to the Highway Trust Fund for transportation projects — would come from the annual $5 billion in bonus bid and royalty payments made to the U.S. Treasury for offshore oil and gas drilling, and from “new uses of offshore waters,” the commission said.
Up to $4 billion of that would be fair game for the fund, along with “any future rents from permitted uses” or “newer emerging uses in federal waters.” The panel said about $1 billion intended for land and water conservation, national historic preservation and coastal states would be unaffected.
The commission found overexploited fish stocks and other depleted marine resources; the loss or declining resilience of habitat; and pervasive water contamination. It recommends more ocean-related education for schoolchildren, and increased emphasis on scientific-based decision-making.
It also advises:
- Improved coordination of ocean policy in the White House, including a new Cabinet-level National Ocean Council, new regional councils and a Presidential Council of Advisers on Ocean Policy.
- New “ecosystem-based” ways of managing that put the needs of nature ahead of political boundaries, while emphasizing that people’s needs must also be considered.
- Reorganizing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as part of a program to make the federal agency structure "less redundant, more effective and better suited to an ecosystem-based management approach.
- Doubling federal funds for ocean research. These have fallen from 7 percent of total federal research 25 years ago to 3.5 percent today, or $650 million a year.
- Coastal planners should "guide growth away from sensitive and hazard prone areas."
The draft report was released ahead of a final report to allow governors and the public time for comment through May 21. A final blueprint is to be delivered to Congress and the White House later this year.
“No report has generated as much talk and anticipation in the ocean community as this one,” said Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., whose legislation created the commission.
The last such report was released in 1969. Worried about foreign fishing fleets close to U.S. coasts, the first ocean commission prompted creation of NOAA in 1970 and coastal zone and fishery management laws in 1976.
Watkins said he and the other 15 commissioners focused on workable solutions, touring dozens of sites and listening to hundreds of people talk about how oceans affect their lives.
The commission estimated the cost of all its recommended actions at $1.3 billion the first year, $2.4 billion the second year and $3.2 billion each year after that. But it pointed to annual ocean-related economic activity of $700 billion in goods that ports handle, $50 billion from fishing and trade, $11 billion from cruise ships and passengers — and $25 billion to $40 billion from offshore oil and gas production.
“If our report is adopted, the payoff will be great,” Watkins said in a video accompanying the report. “It’s now obvious that ocean resources are not limitless, nor are ocean waters capable of continual self-cleansing. The point is this: It’s up to us to find ways to use and enjoy the oceans in a sustainable way.”
“Fundamentally, the message we heard boiled down to this: The oceans and coasts are in trouble, and we need to change the way we manage them,” he said. “Perhaps most important, people must grasp the vital role oceans play in their lives and livelihoods, and the profound impact they themselves have on the oceans and the coasts.”
The full draft report and a means to comment are online at www.oceancommission.gov.