President Bush Should Act Immediately in Response to National Commission's Oceans Report, Says NRDC

NRDC Urges Administration to take Six Steps to Restore Ocean Health

WASHINGTON (September 17, 2004) - When the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy releases its final report on Monday, September 20, President Bush will have 90 days to take concrete steps to address the problems plaguing America's oceans. NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) today sent a letter to the president outlining actions he should initiate in response to what the commission called an urgent need to bring our oceans back to health. (Click here to see a copy of NRDC's four-page letter.)

The U.S. commission, which was appointed by the president, issued a draft version of its report in April, but its final report is not expected to include significant changes. Both the U.S. commission and the independent Pew Oceans Commission, which issued a report in June 2003, found that overfishing, habitat destruction, government mismanagement, coastal development and agricultural runoff have ravaged once bountiful fish populations and created ocean "dead zones." Both commissions made similar recommendations to improve our failed ocean governance system and restore marine resources.

"Thanks to the two commissions, President Bush has a blueprint to reverse the serious decline of our nation's oceans," said NRDC President John Adams, who served on the Pew Oceans Commission. "Now it's time for him to act. Our government needs to be a better steward of this great public resource by stopping destructive fishing practices, cutting the pollution that causes ocean dead zones, and safeguarding wetlands and deep water corals that provide critical habitat for marine life."

NRDC's letter to the president listed six immediate, practical actions his administration should take in response to the U.S. commission's report:

  1. Reform the nation's approach to ocean governance by establishing, by executive order, a national ocean policy to protect, maintain and restore marine ecosystem health; a national oceans advisor to the president; and a national oceans council in the White House's Executive Office to coordinate national ocean policy. The administration also should issue a statement of support for the Oceans Conservation, Education and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act (OCEANS-21, H.R.4900), a strong, bipartisan bill introduced in the House in July.

  2. Restore funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead civilian federal oceans agency, by issuing a statement of support for the increased funding in the Senate-passed fiscal year 2005 Commerce-Justice-State-Judiciary appropriations bill, and by directing the White House's Office of Management and Budget to substantially increase funding for NOAA's ocean and coastal management, conservation, and science programs in the administration's fiscal year 2006 request to Congress.

  3. Protect deep-sea corals and other sensitive deep-sea habitats by issuing a statement of support for a U.N. resolution banning high seas bottom trawling until an effective management policy is in place, and by issuing an executive order establishing a policy to protect these areas from damaging fishing activities.

  4. Protect wetlands, headwaters and coastal waters by rescinding the current U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency guidance that illegally and unjustifiably narrows the scope of Clean Water Act jurisdiction, and by issuing a statement of support for the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act (H.R. 962 and S. 473).

  5. Stop the spread of dead zones in coastal waters by taking specific actions to reduce nutrient pollution, such as requiring good stewardship practices as a prerequisite for receiving federal agriculture program funding, setting a firm deadline for states to issue water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorous, and requiring sewage treatment plants discharging into waters impaired by excessive nutrients to implement biological nutrient removal.

  6. Prevent overfishing by ensuring that scientists -- not the fishing industry -- set sustainable catch levels, and call on the secretary of commerce, who has authority over ocean fish, to reject catch levels that exceed levels recommended by scientists.

Congress has not been waiting for the president to take the lead. Members already have introduced several pieces of legislation that reflect both commissions' recommendations. A House bill, OCEANS-21 (H.R. 4900), and a Senate bill, Ernest Hollings' (D-S.C.) National Ocean Policy and Leadership Act (S. 2647), outline provisions for reforming the nation's ocean policies. OCEANS-21 proposes a national policy to restore and protect ocean health; national standards that support this policy; and mechanisms to ensure that actions that may significantly affect oceans comply with those standards and with regionally developed management plans. The cosponsors of OCEANS-21 are Reps. Thomas Allen (D-Maine), Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).

Both bills would restructure the nation's civilian ocean agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Additionally, they would establish an oversight council to direct and coordinate ocean policies and management. The Senate bill also contains a provision that would make NOAA, which currently is housed in the Commerce Department, an independent body. A markup of the Senate bill is scheduled for September 22.

A third bill, the Fisheries Management Reform Act (H.R. 4607), introduced in the House by Reps. Farr and Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), proposes several reforms to the nation's fisheries management system. Those reforms include broadening representation on regional fisheries management councils beyond fishermen, introducing conflict of interest provisions blocking fishermen from voting on issues that directly affect their income, and separating decisions about how many fish can be caught sustainably from who may catch those fish. Finally, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) likely will introduce comprehensive ocean legislation sometime this fall.

"It will take efforts by both the administration and Congress to address the myriad problems afflicting our oceans," said Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC's Water and Coastal Program. "The two commissions have done their job. Now it's time for our political leaders to get to work."