Ocean Rescue: Congress Acts to Save Our Seas

A perfect storm is brewing on oceans policy. Scientists have long believed that an endangered ocean threatens our food supply, public health, jobs, recreational opportunities and the natural resource legacy we leave our children. But U.S. policy toward oceans is driven by a "frontier mentality" -- a general view that oceans are inexhaustible resources, so vast that human activity can barely make a dent. In fact, the opposite is true: after decades of human abuse, the world's oceans are now in a state of silent collapse.

Two landmark reports -- by the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy -- confirm the dire straits of ocean ecosystems and urge immediate action to tackle the crisis. With the recent release of these two high-profile studies, the time is right to enact comprehensive ocean legislation. It is up to Congress to turn the tide.

Our Endangered Oceans

The problems facing our oceans are far-reaching, ranging from invasive species to climate change. But the sharp decline of ocean health is primarily the result of overfishing and pollution (particularly coastal habitat degradation).

  • Collapsing fish stocks: Industrial fishing has wiped out 90 percent of large ocean fish, including tuna, marlin, swordfish, cod and halibut; 75 percent of the world's marine fish populations are fully fished, overfished or depleted; and 41 percent of all assessed, federally managed ocean fish in the United States are either overfished or experiencing overfishing (or both). As a result, an ever-growing number of valuable fish species is headed for extinction.
  • Coastal development: Paradise is being paved at the expense of wetlands and estuaries that provide critical habitat for fish. Ever-increasing roads, parking lots, driveways and other paved surfaces increase pollutant-laden stormwater runoff into coastal waters, damaging spawning grounds for fish and ocean wildlife.

Policy Sea Change

Our current patchwork of laws and governance has failed to safeguard oceans. Confusion and inaction reign, with approximately 140 different laws -- each with diverging goals and conflicting mandates -- pertaining to the management of the oceans and our nation's coasts. On the federal level, at least six different departments and dozens of agencies are involved in managing the offshore waters (3 to 200 miles), while states exert authority over the nearshore waters (within 3 miles). The challenge, then, is to create a unifying vision of ocean stewardship.

At the heart of the recommendations in the reports by the independent Pew Commission and the presidential-appointed U.S. Commission is the need to refocus human activity in the oceans -- away from constant use and resource extraction, and toward better stewardship, revitalization and recovery. Both reports call for bold, visionary political leadership to capitalize on this historic opportunity to significantly advance ocean conservation. The mechanism for bringing the management of marine life into the 21st century is federal oceans legislation.

The following is a brief overview of ocean governance bills already or about to be introduced in Congress.

Oceans Conservation, Education, and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act: This bill -- known as "Oceans 21" -- will be introduced in the House tomorrow by the four bi-partisan co-chairs of the House Oceans Caucus: Sam Farr (CA-17), Jim Greenwood (PA-8), Tom Allen (ME-1), and Curt Weldon (PA-7). This bill does the following:

  • provides a national vision for protecting, maintaining and restoring oceans;
  • provides necessary mechanisms for ensuring an ecosystems-based approach to oceans management; and
  • creates national ocean science and education programs to better coordinate management decisions and heighten public awareness of the importance of healthy oceans and coasts.

National Ocean Protection Act: This bill, soon to be introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), will address a number of issues related to ocean health and the nation's approach to ocean ecosystems, including ocean governance, pollution, fisheries management and marine habitat restoration.

National Ocean Policy and Leadership Act (S 2647): This bill, which was introduced on July 13 by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC) and co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK), Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Judd Gregg (R-NH), seeks to establish the following:

  • a national policy for a coordinated, comprehensive, and long range program for ocean research and management, focused on several marine related issues ranging from sustainable stewardship of fisheries to protection of property from natural hazards;
  • an independent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with a purpose, structure, and systems for eco-regional and international coordination; and
  • mechanisms for inter-agency coordination around ocean research and conservation priorities, including through the establishment of a council in the Executive Office of the President.

Fisheries Management Reform Act of 2004 (HR 4706): This bill, which was introduced on June 24 by Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and co-sponsored by 15 others, undertakes crucial reforms to the nation's fisheries management system. The bill seeks to:

  • broaden representation on the fisheries management councils beyond fishermen (who currently account for more than 80 percent of all council members);
  • reduce conflict-of-interest with voting members who have a financial stake in the issues;
  • separate scientific decisions regarding how many fish can be caught from who gets to catch those fish to lessen political and economic pressures on the scientists who are determining how many fish can be sustainably caught; and
  • requires training in fisheries science and relevant legal requirements for new council members.

This document was jointly released by the following organizations: Environmental Defense, Marine Fish Conservation Network, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy, and the Ocean Policy Project.