Cabinet-Level Oceans Committee Fills Important Gap; Now Committee and Congress Must Act

WASHINGTON (December 17, 2004) -- President Bush's executive order today creating a cabinet-level Committee on Ocean Policy fills a critical need for coordinated national strategy to protect the seas from overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. Although the policy stops short of major recommendations issued by two blue ribbon commissions, it is an important step in the right direction, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

"We need strong leadership to bring back fish stocks, stop ocean pollution, restore dead zones, and protect threatened habitats. These economic and environmental challenges affect coastal communities in the United States and around the world," said Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC's Coastal and Water Program. "Elevating this to the cabinet level can help break the bureaucratic gridlock. What the committee needs now is a clear, continuing mandate from the president to protect the oceans. Otherwise it's just a paper tiger."

The cabinet committee, which will be headed by the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is supposed to promote better coordination between the many government agencies that now have authority over ocean issues.

The plan is a follow-up to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the independent Pew Oceans Commission, both of which warned of dire human and ecological consequences if urgent measures are not taken soon to prevent the often invisible devastation taking place beneath the ocean surface. (For more information, see NRDC's Oceans pages.)

The plan does not address major priorities identified by both reports, said Chasis. For example, it does not provide a comprehensive ocean policy that promotes the health and sustainability of ocean resources; grant greater independence and responsibility for NOAA; reform the current fishery management system; or offer significant increased investment in ocean science, management and education.

NRDC recommends six immediate steps the president can take today to implement U.S. commission recommendations that are not included in the new administration plan (see the press release).

"Our oceans contributed more than $117 billion to our national economy in 2000 alone and supported more than 2 million jobs," Chasis said. "That's two-and-a-half times more than U.S. agriculture's economic output."

The next steps are up to Congress, where several bills respond to the ocean commission report. They include H.R.4900 (OCEANS-21), S. 2647 (the National Ocean Policy and Leadership Act) and H.R. 4706 (the Fisheries Management Reform Act). H.R. 4900 and S. 2647 would establish a national ocean policy to promote the protection, maintenance and restoration of healthy oceans; prioritize ecosystem-based management; and strengthen NOAA. H.R. 4706 strengthens the current fishery management council system by broadening representation on the councils beyond industry representatives, applying traditional conflict of interest rules to council members and calling for science-based fishing quotas.