Admiral James Watkins lays the groundwork for a national oceans policy

Last year, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy finished a report four years in the making, calling for a broad review of how the federal government manages overfishing, water pollution and other issues. Admiral James Watkins, chairman of the commission and president emeritus at the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, explains why the White House needs to take the lead on ocean policy and present an integrated oceans budget to Congress. Watkins also weighs in on Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and ecosystem-based management.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Admiral James Watkins. He's the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Admiral, thank you so much for being here.

James Watkins: Thank you Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I want to start off with a question about Senator Stevens, he recently introduced his bill to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act, this is the law that governs fishery management. First off, just a real broad question, why do we need change this law right now?

James Watkins: Oh my, we have a tremendous loss of fisheries. We've lost about 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean. Every year we degrade even further. We don't understand ecosystems at all, so we don't know the interplay between nonpoint source pollution and point source pollution, the coral reefs, global climate change. All of these things interface and have to be interconnected. And the governance of this whole system is just out of control. It's dysfunctional. And we have to start looking at it from an ecosystem based approach. That's the only way we're going to approach the fisheries. So in the bill, in the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act, are many good features to strengthen what we've already learned and to get rid of the old practices that leads to race for fish, all of the depletion of the fisheries. It isn't the fisherman's fault. It's the politician's fault. It's all of our fault. For not really understanding what we're doing out there when we deplete our fisheries the way we've done.

Brian Stempeck: And the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, you came out with a major report, just over a year ago with a large list of recommendations, plenty of recommendations for all the federal agencies involved in this, what Congress should be doing. How much do you think Senator Stevens' bill and the White House proposal and these various Magnuson-Stevens proposals take those recommendations into account?

James Watkins: Well Senator Stevens is really, and I'll say his co-chair is Senator Inouye from Hawaii, so those two work very well together, just as Stevens did with Fritz Hollings before, Senator Fritz Hollings. So his bill is right in line with our report except for certain areas that we've said, in testimony before him just yesterday, that we think they could strengthen certain aspects of the so-called science and statistical committees. Give more importance to the science. Get the peer review of the science. Get an external review of the quality of the SSCs. And I think with those there's a chance for enhancing the bill now. And Senator Stevens has offered to me and to others to work with him over the next couple of months and early in the next session of Congress we'll have the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization entered, and I think it's going to be a heck of a bill. And into which so many other things can fit in the so-called ecosystem-based approach that we're recommending.

Brian Stempeck: Talk about that a little bit more. This is a major feature of the report, this ecosystem-based management. And some critics of the Stevens' proposal say, well, it doesn't do enough. I know the bill is still kind of a work in progress. But when you say ecosystem-based management what do you mean by that? What actually happens if you're talking about managing a fishery?

James Watkins: We have managed the fisheries species by species in the past, and what we don't understand is the interaction between a fish species and all of the world around them. Horizontally integrated by nature, beautifully, and we foul it up by managing it vertically. We call it vertical standpipes, 15 agencies involved of the federal government. They don't talk to each other enough, 58 committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives and subcommittees that deal with ocean policy. How can we have a cohesive integrated ocean policy, which we've were tasked to do by the law? Oceans Act 2000 that set up our commission said, "We want a new national ocean policy, because we don't have any today." And so all of this then sent us around the country listening to 450 witnesses, getting our comments from 35 governors, five tribal chiefs. All of that was done and the report went in about a year ago. And we said the overriding conclusion by everybody, every stakeholder, is that we better start looking at the ecosystem totality of these things. You cannot take those species and manage it that way. For example, the cod loss in the Grand Banks up near Newfoundland, you send a farmed cod back out into the wild it's a predator to its own type, the small fry. Aquaculture, deepwater aquaculture or just aquaculture in general, is a wonderful way to provide additional protein for our society in the absence of a lot of the wild fish. On the other hand the pollution factors are staggering and have to be very carefully managed. Are we doing it today? Do we even have a structure for deepwater aquaculture? No. So ecosystems and then understanding it, the role of the reefs, the role of the fishing gear itself. Does it snag sea turtles? Does it snag other fish? Does it snag sea birds? Yes, it does all of that. Can we design it better? Yes. Are we working together to do that? No. So the ecosystem then is a system that says I'm going to integrate atmosphere, land and water together. And I'm going to say they're not separate. They're all integrated. And we better manage that way. That means this horizontal integration has to take place at every level including the White House, the Congress and the governors of all the coastal states, there's 35 of them.

Brian Stempeck: Now you mentioned some of the barriers standing in the way of this, all the dozens of committees, the dozens of agencies. That kind of problem. As you look to resolve that, just kind of simplify this process so someone can come in and actually do these kinds of things, is that happening? I mean will it take just establishing this counsel at the White House? I know is one of the recommendations.

James Watkins: That was a very strong recommendation. We don't like to concentrate solely on governance because government is a nonpolitical interest item. Nobody knows what you're talking about. They just say it's a lot of bureaucracy and so forth. Governance becomes important because we aren't managing by ecosystems. That this means you've got to bring these agencies together. The White House has set up the U.S. Ocean Action Plan. I met with the president in the Oval Office when he signed the executive order setting up this big committee. The committee lays the groundwork for pulling together 15 agencies and to do an integrated budget concept that makes some sense. So that what's going on in EPA, Interior, NOAA, NSF, National Science Foundation, the military, is all integrated in a package that makes some sense. So we've laid the groundwork for doing it. Now we want to do it. And that's why I'm staying in the business, because I've been around this town a long time. And we have thousands of fabulous policies, things that have come out of the National Academy of Science, other commissions and so forth that have never been carried out. And I don't want to have spent three years, $9 million and a terrific report, everybody agrees with it, and then see it just die on the vine. So that's the real issue. Can we deal with ecosystems? Yes. We've said we need a new organic act for NOAA. NOAA now works under an executive order. The strangest thing, it was set up by President Nixon because he was mad at Wally Hickel, the former governor of Alaska, because he was the secretary of Interior and criticized Nixon for some Vietnam issues. It had nothing to do with, so the president just said I'm going to put it in Commerce. Does it really belong in Commerce? No. Because NOAA should have its own budget. So we're saying now let's give them an organic act that allows them to get into the field of education. We have an illiterate nation in ocean education. And this means we don't have a good stewardship ethnic. All of us are part of the problem. And we have to get everybody to understand that throwing a plastic bottle in the gutter is not a good idea.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think the political momentum is there right now? We've seen Senator Stevens is working on this. A lot of members of committees and various support of what he's doing. The House is a little bit further behind. What's your take in terms of how much effort the White House, the House and Senate are putting into this right now?

James Watkins: My sense of the Congress is if the White House is serious and will send up an integrated ocean budget, and by the way the chairman of the Appropriations Committee of the Senate, the chairman of the Budget Committee and others have signed a letter to the president saying we want an integrated ocean budget for next year. And that's a very good first step. Now if they do that the Congress is going to have to respond. So setting up this so-called National Ocean Policy Studies in the Senate Commerce Committee is very important. And it's going to come alive next year. The House Ocean Caucus maybe is the embryo of something that can happen over in the House. But the House is going to have to come together with some concept like a select committee that goes between Transportation, Science and Resources and pull them together to respond to this. The Appropriations committees, both Houses, have to recognize that if an integrated budget comes up they better pay attention to all say nine agencies that are involved. So if you're going to cut some program because of the interaction for these, you better be careful because you're not going to get one witness to come up. You've got to get nine witnesses to come back and say don't do that Congress because you're pulling a linchpin, like a satellite for example, out of our system. So I think we're in the very early stages, we're on the threshold of doing something very important for the long range good of the country. And I think I can happen. I'm optimistic, but it's going to take a full court press. It's going to take a lot of pressure from the states out there. They're serious about it. They know they've got problems. And they're coming together. California, today, submitted a beautiful letter to the White House that said here is our program. We want you to factor this into your long range research concept at the end of calendar year '06. That's the first out of the barrel. There's going to be five governors meeting, and I'm going to be a keynote speaker down in Texas, in March. They're coming together saying let's get the gulf region organized. The Northeast is met in Newfoundland, in St. Johns, with five premiers from the eastern provinces of Canada. They want to get together. There is a Gulf of Maine ocean observing system that's a beautiful model for what we need nationwide.

Brian Stempeck: So we're seeing interest in the state level, at the federal level.

James Watkins: Right, well I think it can be done, Brian. But, again, you can't just let go of these things and put on the table a beautiful policy because somebody has to pick it up. And the only way it's going to be picked up, in my opinion, is for a national agreement with the American public behind it. We've got to do something about the situation that's declining in the ocean.

Brian Stempeck: Beyond just the federal and state level, the other issue before Congress right now is the United Nations Law of the Seas. It's a treaty last year that made it through a Senate committee, didn't quite make it to the floor. How imperative is that as a part of these overall ocean recovery plans that you're talking about?

James Watkins: It is probably the most important issue, in my opinion, to get this nation into a leadership role internationally on ocean issues that touch all the nations of the world. And we haven't been in that position. And we need to get in that position. We're not at the table. There's 146 cosigners to that Law of the Sea Convention. And our first action out of our committee, out of our commission, was to send a letter to the president and to the leader of the Senate that said we think this is so important, in 2001, we said we want that Law of the Sea Convention brought to the floor of the Senate and voted on. We have been saying that over and over and over, and it's still languishing up there with five ideologues that hate the U.N., that aren't willing to do all of these things with U.N. support. So we're saying Mr. President you have supported it. The State Department has supported it. The Secretary of Defense has supported it. You've got everybody else supporting it. We had a letter go up there with 80 signatures of former envoys to the U.N., former ambassadors all saying sign it. And this is both Democrat and Republican. And we can't get it to the Senate floor because of the Senate rule that allows filibuster by a handful of people. John McCain, Senator McCain said it would pass 95 to 5 if it got on the Senate floor. We have to be at the table negotiating these claims. The Russians claimed half of the Arctic. They said it's an extension of their continental shelf. No it's not. We ought to be at the table saying no. Long liner fishermen in the Pacific, why are you denying us to fish south of a certain latitude when no such constraint is on all the other Asian nations? So Korea and Japan and China can do anything they want, but we, our fishermen are denied. So we need to be at the table to negotiate that as an international agreement on conservation. So we're not at the table, and we're the only nation that hasn't signed on yet, and it's crazy. So we say it's extremely important because the oceans touch everybody, it's not just our shores. We can't do without international relationships that are solid. We can't go to war over this, let's go to the table and do it right. There's a lot of good organizations in the U.N., the International Maritime Organization and so forth, they're all terrific. They do a good job. They just need the U.S. to take a lead role and help out. We're going to pay half the bill anyway and we ought to.

Brian Stempeck: All right. Admiral we're of time. Thank you so much for stopping by the show. We appreciate it.

James Watkins: Thanks Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck this is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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