Deep Trouble

Dire assessments of the oceans' decline send the White House, Congress and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fishing for solutions.

Grocery cases brim with seafood. Docks bustle with seaborne cargo. Sun-seekers by the millions head for the seashore. Ocean-related activities add $4.5 trillion to the U.S. gross national product and account for 60 million jobs. America's 4.5 million square miles of coastal and marine waters are an economic paradise.

But there's trouble in paradise. Two high-profile study commissions, one private and one chartered by Congress, warned recently that our use and enjoyment of the open seas comes with a price we are just beginning to comprehend. Coastal counties comprise only 17 percent of the land area of the contiguous United States, but they're home to more than half the population. Some 3,600 people take up residence near the ocean every day. The migration heaps stress on delicate habitats that filter runoff, buffer storms and shelter wildlife.

More than 110 million acres of wetlands have disappeared since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Coastal waters are bombarded with every imaginable pollutant, threatening tourism. Swimmers are turned away from sewage-soaked beaches. Seafood is served up with a warning that eating it can make you sick. Marine species are in decline. Fisheries are collapsing.

The government is to blame. Or so says the nonpartisan U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, created by Congress in 2000 to conduct the first comprehensive review of federal ocean management in 35 years. Last September, the commission published a 610-page report, "An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century," that demanded an overhaul of the bureaucracy-a confusing array of 55 congressional committees and subcommittees overseeing 20 federal agencies and permanent commissions implementing 140 laws. The panel, appointed by President Bush, held 16 public meetings, visited 18 coastal locales, took 1,900 pages of testimony from 447 witnesses, and concluded that mismanagement by federal, state and local governments led to the ecological problems now afflicting the oceans and coasts.

The commission chairman, retired Adm. James D. Watkins, delivered the report to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee with an admonition: "Our failure to properly manage the human activities that affect the nation's oceans, coasts and Great Lakes is compromising their ecological integrity, diminishing our ability to fully realize their potential, costing us jobs and revenue, threatening human health, and putting our future at risk."

The findings of the Commission on Ocean Policy echo those of a private group, the Pew Oceans Commission, in 2003. The Pew report, "America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change," bemoaned the "hodgepodge of ocean laws and programs" that produced fragmented authority without clear goals or measurable objectives. "Plagued with systematic problems," it stated, "U.S. ocean governance is in disarray."

The overriding message of the back-to-back reports: Act now, while it's still possible to reverse the damage.

Both said ocean management should be based on ecosystems, an approach that respects natural boundaries more than political jurisdictions. Among its 212 suggested actions for Congress and the executive branch, the policy commission recommended consolidating ocean management responsibilities within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Commerce Department agency that has operated without clear legal standing since President Nixon established it by executive order in 1970. The Pew group took empowerment a step further, suggesting that NOAA be granted bureaucratic independence.

The Bush administration issued the Ocean Action Plan in December 2004, promising direction for policy through short-term actions already under way and long-term actions it intends to undertake. A presidential order accompanying the plan fulfilled the single most important recommendation: It created a Cabinet-level committee to coordinate ocean policy.

The key challenge for NOAA will be to develop management strategies that ensure both conservation and public enjoyment of coastal and marine habitats and living resources. For many Americans, the impending changes will be no day at the beach. "The country will be going through a transition," says NOAA's administrator, retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., "from the idea that the oceans and the fish are just totally free assets . . . to a point where the ocean resources are limited."

Free NOAA

Eleven Cabinet-level departments, four independent agencies and three White House entities currently have some responsibility for oceans and coasts. None of this oversight is coordinated. Much of it has stemmed from advice doled out by the Stratton Commission, which conducted the nation's first review of ocean policy in 1969. That review led to the founding of NOAA and prompted many of the laws that protect coastal zones, marine mammals, ocean waters and fisheries today. They include the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which is undergoing reauthorization this year. It extended U.S. offshore jurisdiction to 200 miles and set up a complicated scheme of regional management councils reporting to the Commerce Department. Ocean laws spawned in the 1970s addressed urgent environmental and commercial needs. They expanded federal responsibility, but didn't permit NOAA to oversee more than a small portion of marine activities.

The Nixon directive combined several disparate federal agencies that were among the oldest in government. They included the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, formed in 1807; the Weather Bureau, formed in 1870; and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, formed in 1871. By many accounts, NOAA has gotten lost in Commerce despite accounting for roughly two-thirds of the Cabinet agency's budget. It's a moderately sized agency with a big mission that begs for more financial support. "NOAA is one of the best-kept secrets in government," says Andrew Rosenberg, a member of the Commission on Ocean Policy and a former deputy director of NOAA Fisheries. "It's remained a collection of somewhat separate agencies as opposed to a coherent whole."

"Ocean Blueprint" observed that the lack of a congressional mandate impedes the agency's leadership. Both the executive and legislative branches set out to fix that problem before the report was finished. The Bush administration; Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich.; and former Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., floated proposals to clarify NOAA's mission and duties last year. All were introduced too late to get serious consideration in the 108th Congress and had to be renewed. Ehlers reintroduced his legislation in March, the administration resubmitted its version in April, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., proposed a bill in June.

Ehlers' proposal, approved by the House Science Committee in May, spells out a NOAA mission, aligns agency functions to support ecosystem-based management and research, and permits the agency to reorganize as needed. The bill also calls for a new deputy assistant secretary to coordinate research and science activities-a provision the White House opposes. Boxer's proposed 2005 National Oceans Protection Act adds a stewardship council to review funding, policy recommendations and protection programs. It revives another idea the Bush administration rejects-moving NOAA out of Commerce and making it independent.

The administration's version simply sets forth NOAA's purposes and authorizes it to undertake whatever activities are necessary to implement them. Ocean advocates are disappointed it didn't go further. "The whole idea of the commission report is that you really set NOAA up to be the true lead ocean agency, that you give it a clear mandate to do ecosystem-based management, that you call for clear guidance for ocean policy, and that NOAA be reconfigured in order to meet that challenge," says Rosenberg. Lautenbacher argues the proposal is simple for good reason. All NOAA needs, he says, is a high-level document that defines its role in government, gives it authority to operate and doesn't restrict its flexibility to change with the times. "We need authority, contracting authority," says Lautenbacher. "Unfortunately, we're engaged right now with how many assistant administrators [I should] have."

On June 16, the House Oceans Caucus reintroduced broad bipartisan legislation that ties up coastal and marine protection issues in a single package. First proposed in the 108th Congress, the bill, the Oceans Conservation, Education and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act, or OCEANS 21, takes ecosystem management down to the regional level, with a governance structure that functions as a clearinghouse for federal, state and local programs. "OCEANS 21 offers a comprehensive national oceans policy, based on our new understanding of how ecosystems work, that will protect, maintain and restore the health of our oceans," caucus co-chairman Sam Farr, D-Calif., said in a statement accompanying the bill's second release. Among its provisions for national management standards and expanded science programs, the bill also aims to strengthen NOAA without granting independence.

Under the Watkins commission's plan, NOAA would have more authority to manage the oceans and more money to study and explore them. The ocean report did not recommend moving NOAA out of Commerce, but some wished it had. D. James Baker, the longest-serving NOAA administrator, now with the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, said in September that NOAA was "hampered by having to operate within the Department of Commerce" and as a consequence, its critical programs were constrained and budget priorities were ignored. Some say the passage of an organic act clarifying NOAA's mission and duties could be the first step to removing it from Commerce and setting it up as a new Department of Natural Resources.

Rhythms of Nature

Both the Pew Commission and the Commission on Ocean Policy said the government should adopt an ecosystem-based approach to natural resources management. That means looking holistically at the impacts of human activities on the environment and managing them to the rhythms of nature. The objective is to conserve resources and ensure the public benefits from them at the same time.

Catching fish is a simple example. An ecosystem-based approach to fishing regulation might take into account not only the number and species of fish in the sea, but also how changes in water quality cause different fish populations to rise and fall. Changes in water temperature could trigger changes in the geographical areas or seasons open to fishing in order to guard against accidental catches of endangered species such as sea turtles.

The hard part? Making sure there are enough fish to satisfy America's insatiable demand for seafood. At our current consumption rate of 16 pounds per person per year, we'll need 2 million extra tons of fish by 2025. We'll need 4 million to 6 million tons more annually if we double our seafood consumption as federal nutritionists recommend. Already, we're importing 70 percent of the seafood we consume because the $28 billion U.S. commercial fishing industry can't keep up. Stocks are declining, some are threatened with extinction and U.S. fisheries are suffering economic backlash. "With the technology we have today for catching fish, we have in many cases an overcapacity issue," says Lautenbacher. "We're always looking for creative ways to deal with [it]."

NOAA buys fishing vessels to move their owners out of the business when it can get Congress' OK. It also wants to bring a more businesslike approach to fisheries management through increased use of individual fishing quotas. It has proposed amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act to allow the use of quotas and privileged access as management tools. An individual fishing quota is a federal permit to harvest a certain quantity of fish, usually a percentage of a fishery's total catch. The permits are controversial, but gaining wider acceptance, because they promise a better balance of supply and demand and financial rewards for conservation.

In pursuit of an ecosystem-based approach, NOAA has proposed several pieces of legislation. Two of the most recent are a plan to regulate open-ocean aquaculture and another to revise the national overfishing standard.

The proposed 2005 National Offshore Aquaculture Act would authorize the Commerce secretary to establish environmental requirements and issue permits for fish farms in the exclusive economic zone that extends 200 miles from U.S. shores. NOAA currently lacks the appropriate jurisdiction to do this. The legislation also aims to whittle away at an $8 billion annual seafood trade deficit. Officials say regulatory uncertainty is a major barrier to the development of offshore aquaculture in this country.

In introducing the bill, NOAA officials played up the idea of providing a mechanism for managing offshore aquaculture as it develops. To Rosenberg, who wonders why it didn't contain a clear statement of environmental standards, it reads like a promotional bill. "I'm not sure we have made progress toward thinking about the ocean more holistically," he says. "Twenty-five years ago, we promoted fisheries right through to overfishing. I don't want to see that happen with aquaculture."

Rebuilding Schools

The proposed aquaculture act won't solve the overfishing problem, and NOAA's critics aren't convinced that proposed guidelines for implementing the Magnuson-Stevens Act will, either.

On June 22, NOAA unveiled its revised interpretation of the first of 10 national standards spelled out in the act. National Standard 1 requires fishery managers to prevent overfishing and to rebuild stocks in federal waters while still achieving optimum yield. The proposed guidelines would replace the term "overfished" with "depleted" to reflect that fish population declines are not wholly dependent on fishing, but also caused by high predator abundance, limited breeding years, environmental phenomenon and natural disasters.

In NOAA's vision, regional management councils would set the target catch, or optimum yield, for a fishery at less than the maximum sustainable yield. The change would provide a buffer to reduce the risk of overfishing. The councils also would be required to set a midway point as the target time for rebuilding fish stocks instead of the current common practice of using the maximum allowable rebuilding time frame. The current rule seeks to rebuild as quickly as possible within 10 years plus a generation, which can extend the rebuilding time for some slow-breeding stocks to as much as 20 or 30 years. The burden would be on the councils to take additional action if rebuilding plans are not achieving the desired results.

Opponents say the proposed guidelines would gut the current standard and weaken federal policy, because they could delay recovery for stocks that can rebuild faster. "It's already difficult to keep our fish populations in a healthy state and keep the feet of the councils to the fire and actually force them to rebuild some of these fish populations," says Matthew Rand, director of the Conserve Our Ocean campaign at the National Environmental Trust. "I view this [and the aquaculture bill] as NOAA throwing in the towel on our wild fishery stocks."

According to the Commission on Ocean Policy, the oceans are in trouble in part because the current system of governance is too easy to politicize. Fishery management isn't NOAA's only business, but exemplifies how giving NOAA more teeth-perhaps even independence-could weaken the power of narrow constituencies by heightening public awareness of the agency. Political pressure on the bureaucracy comes mostly from elected officials responding to vocal constituents, and the most vocal constituent in fisheries happens to be the regulated industry. Recently, more environmental groups have entered the fray, but they still have a relatively small voice. "There's always going to be sympathy with the poor fisherman who's just trying to bring home a couple of fish to feed his family," says Rosenberg. "Well, that's not exactly what's going on."

Although it's not likely to be charting its own course even if Congress passes an organic act to clarify its mission and duties, NOAA is guaranteed to gain fundamental new powers, such as the authority to spend money on its own, and a much higher profile. Lautenbacher is confident that ecosystem-based decision-making won't be too much of a stretch for NOAA. "We have been evolving natural resources management for years, for decades . . . so this is not something that represents a huge change," he says. Whether the extra clout is enough to fix what went wrong with the oceans remains to be seen.

NEXT STORY: Sea Change

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