Democrats call for NOAA to focus on troubled oceans

Senators seek more resources to address challenges; problems include loss of coastal wetlands and coral reefs.

Urging greater attention to the deteriorating oceans, Senate Democrats urged the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a Thursday hearing to focus on dealing with mounting problems the world's oceans face.

Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, the undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator, outlined changes to the Senate Commerce National Ocean Policy Subcommittee that he said would improve how the agency deals with mounting problems in the oceans in a challenging budget environment.

Part of that restructuring includes the Committee on Ocean Policy established in 2004 to create a framework to coordinate 20 federal agencies that administer more than 140 laws regarding the oceans. In addition, NOAA was given the lead role in the U.S. Ocean Action Plan, which identifies short-term and long-term actions to deal with ocean and coastal matters, he said.

National Ocean Policy Subcommittee ranking member Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said the administration had not provided sufficient money to address challenges the oceans face.

Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, co-chairman of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, supported calls for greater resources. "Our oceans are in crisis," said Panetta, who pointed to problems such as overexploited fisheries, harmful algae blooms in many coastal areas, loss of coastal wetlands and coral reefs, and problems caused by invasive species.

Those problems are compounded by "a dysfunctional, out-of-date, and inadequate system of ocean and coastal governance," said Panetta, whose commission two months ago made recommendations for improving oceanic governance.

Panetta also urged passage of the Tsunami Preparedness Act, which directs the NOAA administrator to improve tsunami detection, forecast, data collection and analysis; and the National Ocean Exploration Program Act, which calls for the secretary of Commerce to develop in NOAA a coordinated national ocean exploration program to increase undersea research.

National Ocean Policy Subcommittee Chairman John Sununu, R-N.H., said "It would be a mistake to lose sight of the global concern for the oceans by focusing too narrowly on a few programs."

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