"Our oceans...are in trouble," Admiral James Watkins testified
to a Senate committee recently. "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," he declared in a
written statement. On September 20, Watkins delivered the final report
of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy to President Bush and congressional
leaders, and he appeared the following day before the Senate Commerce,
Science, and Transportation Committee to describe the report's recommendations.
The commission's "overriding message," he said, is "the
need to act now, while it is still possible to reverse the distressing
declines." The final version of the report, Watkins said, contains
"numerous clarifications" that were added in response to public
comments on the preliminary version. The final report is available at
The preliminary report and its science-related provisions were highlighted
in prior FYIs (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/090.html
As Chair of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Watkins praised the
"enormous contribution" of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) for
initiating the legislation that established the commission. The final
report, Watkins said, contains 212 recommendations that are primarily
aimed at the executive and legislative branches of the federal government,
and that constitute "balanced, workable solutions for some of the
most pressing problems." Among other actions, the commission calls
for establishment of a Cabinet-level National Ocean Council, a President's
Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy, and regional councils to bring
together the many state and local stakeholders; a five-year doubling
of the federal investment in ocean and coastal research; development
of an Integrated Ocean Observing System; enhancement of public education
and outreach; and passage of an organic act that codifies the existence
of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
After receiving comments on the preliminary report, Watkins said, the
commission added more details on the estimated cost of the recommendations,
clarified the role of state governments, and expanded the discussion
of the ocean component of climate change. It also addressed concerns
that the proposed Ocean Policy Trust Fund, intended to help support
implementation of the recommendations through revenues from oil and
gas drilling and other activities in federal waters, might unintentionally
promote such activities. The commission estimates the total additional
cost to implement its suggestions at approximately $1.5 billion in the
first year and $3.9 billion per year when all are fully implemented.
"The urgent need for action is clear," Watkins concluded,
and the report "sends a strong signal that the time is ripe for
Now that the commission has submitted the results of its work, the
Administration has 90 days to produce a response. The NOAA Administrator,
Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr., stated that much of the report
was "in line with" existing Administration programs and priorities,
and promised that the Administration would take "the commission's
findings and recommendations very seriously." He referred listeners
to a new web site (http://ocean.ceq.gov)
set up by the White House Council on Environmental Quality to describe
existing programs and future responses to the report.
A second panel of witnesses commended the commission's report, although
some suggested that it did not go far enough. Berrien Moore of the University
of New Hampshire said he chaired a NOAA Science Advisory Board Research
Review Team whose conclusions on strengthening NOAA were "generally
consistent" with the relevant commission recommendations. Given
the fact that implementing the commission report would require that
NOAA take on substantial new responsibilities, he argued that transforming
NOAA into an independent agency outside the Department of Commere was
"probably essential." However, he acknowledged that "evolutionary
steps" would probably be needed. D. James Baker of the Philadelphia
Academy of Natural Sciences, who was the longest-serving Administrator
of NOAA, heading the agency from 1993 to 2001, supported the commission's
report but agreed that NOAA was "hampered by having to operate
within the Department of Commerce;" as a consequence, he added,
"critical programs are constrained and budget priorities are ignored."
Vice Admiral Roger Rufe of the Ocean Conservancy, and a former member
of the Pew Oceans Commission, said the two commissions "spoke with
one voice" in stating that "bold, visionary action" was
necessary to save the oceans.
"The overall impression of the report is one of urgency,"
said Commerce Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ). "I don't want
this report to languish in the dustbins of history," added Sen.
Olympia Snowe (R-ME). But she warned that "considerable strength"
would be needed in both the House and Senate to "make sure we follow
up on these recommendations." Concerns for the state of the oceans
has been demonstrated in both chambers; Watkins noted appreciatively
that, in the last year, at least 63 bills related to this issue have
been introduced. But as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) remarked, Congress
is "running out of days here." Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), who appeared
as a witness at the Senate hearing, indicated that if the Senate could
take the lead in producing a comprehensive ocean policy bill, "I
think the House will respond appropriately."
Asked what Congress should do first, given the limited time left in
the session, Watkins said the recommendations in general should be considered
as "a package deal." But he urged, "as a first step,"
that Congress pass an organic act for NOAA and give it independent budget
authority. While he hoped that NOAA might eventually be removed from
the Commerce Department and set up as an independent Department of Natural
Resources, he thought such a move in the near-term would be "politically
unacceptable" and "waste a lot of time."
A number of bills have now been introduced to authorize NOAA and enact
some or all of the commission's recommendations. Recently, the House
Science Committee's Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee
marked up a NOAA authorization act, H.R. 4546, on September 29. In the
Senate, the Commerce Committee on September 22 passed a comprehensive
ocean policy bill, S. 2647, the "Ernest F. Hollings National Ocean
Policy and Leadership Act." However, none are likely to reach the
House or Senate floor before Congress heads home this weekend, not to
return until after the elections.