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April 20, 2004

Ocean Commission releases preliminary report

Congress should amend the Clean Water Act to establish a new national regime for managing wastewater discharges from large passenger vessels, including several elements: uniform discharge standards and waste management procedures; thorough recordkeeping requirements to track the waste management process; required sampling, testing, and monitoring by vessel operators using uniform protocols; and flexibility and incentives to encourage industry investment in innovative treatment technologies.

That's just one of the many recommendations made in a massive preliminary report issued today by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Many of the reports other recommendations have implications for shipowners and the offshore industry, including a recommendation that an Ocean Policy Trust Fund be established "based on revenue from offshore energy activity and other new and emerging offshore uses" to pay for implementing the recommendations.

The preliminary report calls on Congress and the President to "establish a new national ocean policy that balances use with sustainability, is based on sound science and educational excellence, and moves toward an ecosystem-based management approach.".

"Our oceans and coasts are in trouble, and we as a nation have an historic opportunity to make a positive and lasting change in the way we manage them before it is too late," said retired Admiral James D. Watkins (USN), Chair of the US Commission on Ocean Policy. "If the recommendations contained in our report are adopted, we will create sustainable oceans and coasts for many, many years. We will create sustainable ocean resources; sustainable fisheries; sustainable recreation for our children and their children; sustainable economic development; and a sustainable future for our oceans and coasts."

The last comprehensive review of U.S. Ocean Policy was conducted thirty-five years ago by the Stratton Commission. Since then America's oceans and coasts have changed drastically. More than 37 million people, 19 million homes, and countless businesses have been added to coastal areas, says the Commission.

Marine transportation and coastal recreation and tourism have become two of the top drivers of the national economy. These developments, however, come with costs in terms of depleted resources, lost habitat, and polluted waters.

Living ocean and coastal resources, once thought to be boundless, have revealed their limits, says the Commission. Coastal areas are essential spawning, feeding, and nursery areas for over three quarters of U.S. commercial fish catches, however about 40,000 acres of coastal wetlands disappear yearly. Current projections indicate 50-60 percent of coral reefs may be lost during the next 30 years. Twelve billion tons of ballast water is shipped around the world each year, spreading alien and invasive species.

When Congress passed the Oceans Act 2000 (P.L. 106-256) it acknowledged both the costs and the significance of the oceans and coasts. Pursuant to the Act, the President appointed 16 members to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. The Commission's mandate was to establish findings and develop recommendations for a new and comprehensive national ocean policy.

The Commission began its work in September 2001 with a series of 15 public meeting and 17 additional site visits in every coastal region of the country and the Great Lakes. The Commission heard testimony from 440 experts, including many of the nation's top ocean scientists and researchers, environmental organizations, industry, citizens and government officials, as well as receiving written testimony from countless others.

The Commission is now releasing its Preliminary Report to be reviewed by the state Governors and other stakeholders.

"Our report puts forth long overdue bold and broad-reaching recommendations for reform to our national ocean policy," said Watkins. "

The Commission identified a number of needed changes based upon three fundamental themes:

  • Creating a new national ocean policy framework to improve decision-making
  • Strengthening science and generating high-quality accessible information to inform decision makers;
  • Enhancing ocean education to instill future leaders and informed citizens with a stewardship ethic.

According to the report, a new national ocean policy framework must be established to improve federal leadership and coordination to enable agencies to address the ocean, land and air as one inter-connected system. This framework also enhances opportunities for state, territorial, tribal, and local entities to develop common regional goals and priorities.

The Commission found that policies and decisions about ocean and coastal resources need to be based on the most current, unbiased, credible scientific information. This requires new investment in the infrastructure to support data collection and research and the means to effectively translate scientific findings into useful, timely information for policy managers, educators, and the public.

The report also focuses on the importance of enhancing ocean education to improve decision makers' understanding of the oceans, for the general public to develop a sense of stewardship, and to prepare a new generation of leaders to confront issues dealing with oceans and coasts.

Building on the foundation of these themes, the Commission's report contains recommendations that span the gamut of ocean and coastal issues, ranging from upstream areas to the depths of the oceans floor, from the practical problem-solving issues, to philosophical approaches that will guide us into the next century.

The Commission concluded that the following actions are critical:

  • Establishment of a National Ocean Council in the Executive Office of the President chaired by an Assistant to the President;
  • Creation of a non-federal President with Presidential Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy;
  • Strengthen the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and improving federal agency structure;
  • Develop a flexible, voluntary process for creating regional ocean councils, facilitated and supported by the National Ocean Council;
  • Double U.S. investment in ocean research;
  • Implement the national Integrated Ocean Observing System;
  • Increase attention to ocean education through coordinated and effective formal and informal programs;
  • Strengthen the link between coastal and watershed management;
  • Create measurable water pollution reduction goals, particularly for nonpoint sources, and strengthen incentives, technical assistance, and other management tools to reach those goals;
  • Reform fisheries management by separating scientific assessment and allocation, improving the Regional Fishery Management Council system, and exploring the use of dedicated access privileges;
  • Accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and
  • Establish an Ocean Policy Trust Fund based on revenue from offshore energy activity and other new and emerging offshore uses to pay for implementing the recommendations.

"This is a crossroads moment for our country and the future of our nation's oceans and coasts," said Watkins. "It will require great political will, investment and support of the public. But the benefits and pay off to this country--and its citizens--will far exceed the cost and the effort for generations to come."

The Commission's Preliminary Report is part of a two-stage process. In this stage, the report will be available for review and comment by the nation's governors and interested stakeholders. Availability of the Preliminary Report appears in the Federal Register and includes information about the comment period, which begins April 21, 2004 and ends May 21, 2004. An electronic copy of the report and detailed instructions for submitting comments also is available on the Commission website, http://oceancommission.gov.

Stage two begins when the public comment period closes on May 21, 2004. At that point, the Commission will take time for a comprehensive review of the comments received from the governors and others. Once all comments are considered, the Commission will prepare and deliver its final report and recommendations on a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy to the President and Congress.

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