OCEANS:

Panel urges federal action to protect coasts, marine resources

A blue-ribbon panel is urging Congress and the Obama administration today to toughen federal coastal protections in the face of rising climate threats and increased pressure from offshore energy producers.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative outlined a short-term agenda calling for a new White House-level ocean policy coordinator and the long-stalled ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty.

"Our continuing complacency in the face of rising threats to the health and economic viability of our oceans and coasts from climate change, pollution and intense coastal development is no longer tolerable," said retired Navy Adm. James Watkins, the co-chairman of the initiative. "Unless we commit to advancing our understanding, management and conservation of oceans and coasts, I am afraid the result will be enduring, and perhaps irreversible, changes that will jeopardize their contributions to this and future generations."

Commissioners presented their 44-page report to lawmakers and the Obama administration. The report says a "lack of a rational management strategy" and weakened ocean science have resulted in sharp declines in the goods and services that the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes have provided.

Declining coastal resources are creating a "sense of urgency" because of the impact on communities, the economy and quality of life, the report says.

Scientists are predicting that warming temperatures will cause rising seas, more intense storms and increased coastal flooding and erosion. Thus, the report warns, climate change poses a grave economic threat in coastal areas -- home to more than half the U.S. population and contributor of 68 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

The commission's new recommendations follow on massive reports from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission five years ago. Those reports were widely quoted on Capitol Hill and in the Bush administration, which sought to accomplish their recommendations. The commission has updated those reports to reflect growing concerns about climate change.

"The issues we raised have become even more critical since then," said Paul Kelly, one of the commissioners and president of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation.

The Bush administration took some actions in response to the previous reports, including the creation of a committee on ocean policy at the White House level. The commission is now calling for a higher-level appointment in the White House who would be responsible for coordinating ocean and coastal activities among federal agencies.

The commission also wants the new administration and Congress to act on some key policy areas that were left undone last year -- including legislation codifying NOAA and ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Law of the Sea

Described by many as a "constitution for the oceans," the Law of the Sea provides a framework for navigating and managing marine areas. It delineates offshore jurisdictions and outlines a global marine protection program.

More than 150 nations, along with the European Commission, have ratified the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994.

U.S. mining interests, the oil and gas industry, the Navy, and the Defense and State departments support the treaty. The Bush administration also supported treaty ratification, but the measure has been buried in the Senate.

The commission is hoping the Obama administration can push for ratification of the treaty, which commission members say is even more important as nations stake claims to rich Arctic resources exposed by melting ice.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for ratification of the treaty in her opening statement yesterday at a conference of nations gathered for the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council. Clinton also called for more protection for the polar regions.

"It is crucial we work together," Clinton said. "That starts with the Law of the Sea Convention, which President Obama and I are committed to ratifying, to give the United States and our partners the clarity we need to work together smoothly and effectively in the Arctic region."

Commission recommendations

The ocean commission is offering 20 recommendations for Congress and the new administration. Among them:

  • Change the Clean Water Act to reduce pollution from stormwater.
  • Create an ocean investment fund from rents generated by offshore energy development.
  • Dedicate some funds from climate legislation to protecting and researching coastal ecosystems.
  • Expedite implementation of the primary U.S. fishery management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

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