Oceans and Coastline Face Environmental Troubles; Report Urges New Policies

By JOSHUA SABATINI

A report that details the findings of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy halfway through its 18-month study of the nation's seas paints a bleak picture of coastal waters.

"The oceans are in trouble," the report says. "Our coasts are in trouble. Our marine resources are in trouble . . . all, perhaps, in serious trouble."

At this point in the study, the 16-member commission chaired by James D. Watkins, a former chief of naval operations and national security expert, has only highlighted critical points.

The report points to poor management as a reason for the oceans' poor conditions.

"Dramatic increases in population and pollution along our shorelines clearly indicate that the nation's capability to manage our coasts is inadequate," it says.

The report acknowledges that swimming, boating, fishing and diving are a major source of revenue for coastal communities, but also that such activity "has had serious and deleterious effects on the health of estuaries, coastal waters and the oceans."

Reducing such activity, however, could have serious fiscal impacts. "The 180 million visitors who enjoy coastal areas and coral reefs each year currently account for 85 per cent of U.S. tourism revenues," the report states.

One of the problems the commission has found is the continuous depletion of fish stocks. It cites inadequate fisheries management as a reason for the decline.

"Marine fishery management has an uneven, and often poor, record. Scientific advice has been ignored all too often at the expense of fisheries and the long-term sustainability of the fishing industry," the report says.

The nation's coastal waters are an important area for the reproduction of fish; the same areas account for more than three-quarters of the U.S. commercial fish catch, according to the report.

One striking statistic in the report is that about 40,000 acres of coastal wetlands disappear each year.

The study emphasizes that the nation's oceans, once treated as a boundless resource, have been shown to be a limited asset after all.

"Of the 23 per cent of U.S. managed fish stock that have been fully assessed," the report says, "over 40 per cent are considered depleted or are being fished beyond sustainable levels."

Striking a sympathetic tone with the Vineyard community and those like it, the report says, "All Americans should be able to enjoy clean and healthy beaches and wholesome seafood."

Threatening such a right is pollution.

"Ocean pollution is a growing problem, much of it caused by nonpoint sources, such as farming practices, urban runoff and air pollution deposition," the report says. "The sources are numerous and dispersed while the solutions are elusive and challenging."

Contributing to the pollution is the boat traffic in and out of American ports.

"Over 95 per cent of the cargo volume moving into and out of the United States is by ship, and this is expected to double by the year 2020," the report says.

In the report, the commission acknowledges that it is imperative that U.S. port infrastructure be designed to handle the projected increase in traffic. This increase furthermore will pose a significant environmental threat to the surrounding port waters.

The challenge, the report says, is to protect and conserve the critical coastal and marine resources "through environmentally sound planning for port expansion, dredge material disposal, and management of ballast water and other discharges from commercial ships."

The report says, "Twelve billion tons of ballast water is shipped around the world each year, spreading alien and invasive species."

The commission acknowledges that a proper balance must be reached between economic gain and environmental issues.

To improve the management of the oceans, the commission emphasizes the need for further study of the relationship between the climate and the oceans.

"Through greater understanding of the oceans, we can better position ourselves to predict droughts, with their devastating effect on agriculture; hurricanes and storm surges that affect coastal areas, and public health threats now shown to emanate from a warming ocean," the report says.

The commission has listened to testimony during the first half of its study in locations from Florida to Alaska. According to the report, a number of presenters urged the development of "integrated ocean and coastal observing and prediction systems."

During the public hearing process, the commission also heard about "abrupt climate changes."

"Although the oceans clearly play a crucial role in controlling climatic events, this is not understood in sufficient detail to predict or take action in a timely fashion on rapid climate change events and their impacts," the report says.

The report also shows that the commission wants to learn more about the Arctic Ocean, "the least understood of all of the world's oceans."

The Arctic Ocean remains vitally important to the United States, the report says: "The Arctic is a key component of global climate change, a known sink for contaminants, the habitat for one of the nation's largest and most valuable fisheries and the basis of subsistence for northern peoples."

Examining the best methods to protect important coastal areas, the commission charges that policies governing the oceans are convoluted.

The commission points out that "jurisdictional and legal confusion and ambiguity are not uncommon in our coastal laws"; clarifying ocean laws and policies would make for easier management, it says.

Ocean conditions are not just for scientists and government officials to solve, the report adds. Americans themselves have a role to play in the future challenges to protect and improve the nation's oceans.

"All Americans affect the oceans wherever they may live," the report says. "Yet, we do not fully understand the nature of these interactions and relationships."

Education, management and investment strategy, the commission suggests, may foster a better relationship between citizens and their oceans.

"The commission is optimistic that it can provide answers to many serious challenges, yet it is concerned whether there is a sufficient sense of national urgency to implement a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy to address these challenges," the report says.

The commission intends to provide a range of possible solutions to these challenges in a final June 2003 report to the President and Congress.

The midway report was sent on Sept. 17 to President Bush, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle.

The report says, "A better understanding of how our oceans work and their importance to our lives is the key to the cultivation and promotion of the ocean stewardship ethic that is needed to promote and protect the health of our ocean resources."