Report: US oceans a mess

Commission on Ocean Policy calls for better governance and doubling research budget

Sep 20, 2004
Graciela Flores(

The oceans surrounding the United States are in serious trouble, and the system of governance is insufficient to protect them, according to the US Commission on Ocean Policy, which is to deliver its final report today (September 20) to the president and to members of Congress.

Built on inputs from hundreds of experts and the public in numerous site visits and public meetings around the country, the report describes how pollution, excess nutrients, sediments, and algal blooms are affecting the water and the life it sustains, how living marine resources are declining, and how habitat is being lost.

"Persistent organic pollutants and nutrients, particularly nitrogen, on the coasts are one of our biggest challenges," Donald Boesch, of the University of Maryland, who testified before the commission, told The Scientist. "Nitrogen reaches the oceans from agricultural runoff, animal waste in agricultural production, street runoff, and atmospheric pollution from power plants and automobiles often coming from states located thousands of miles away from the coasts."

One way to integrate all of these challenges is what the commission calls an "ecosystem-based approach," a management of ocean resources that reflects the relationships among all ecosystem components.

The report calls for the creation of a new national ocean policy framework to facilitate decision making. "We need to set up a national ocean council that has oversight of all ocean policies, continues to coordinate at the federal level, and begins the process of setting regional councils to coordinate at the regional level," Ocean Commissioner Andrew Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire told The Scientist.

Rosenberg emphasized the importance of looking across areas such as fisheries, pollution, and coastal development instead of dealing with each activity entirely separately, as they are now. The report also proposes strengthening agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "which is supposed to be the lead agency but doesn't have the powers or the tools to do what they need to do," Rosenberg said.

A key recommendation is doubling the ocean research budget over the next 5 years—from $650 million to $1.3 billion per year—to ensure science-based measures from decision makers. Part of that budget would be used to implement an integrated ocean observing system, linked to an international system.

"We have the technology to gather data from many different sensors deployed on the oceans on ships, buoys, and autonomous robots, as well as satellites, but we need a system that integrates all these disparate datasets and generates products useful to the public, industry, and government entities," said Ocean Commissioner Frank Muller-Karger of the University of South Florida. "This should work like the National Weather System, which has established a network across the globe to collect data and integrate it to make products we use every day and now take for granted."

The report also calls for new uses of the ocean, including offshore wind power generation, bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals, and desalination plants. It also stresses the need for educational initiatives at all levels and the strengthening of the role of the United States in international treaties and obligations, said Rosenberg.

The preliminary report, released in April, received wide support. "The commission has made huge contributions in terms of identifying a major environmental problem and coming up with many important solutions," said Sarah Chassis of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"We need to correct those problems now," said Ray Pringle of the Florida Fishermen's Federation. "I know that some of my colleagues are not going to like this, but I just have to be truthful. Everybody loves the water, and they are loving it to death."