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Study Delves Into Troubled Waters

Panel depicts a growing crisis in U.S. oceans, caused by overfishing, pollution and urban growth. Major changes in oversight are urged.

June 05, 2003|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

A three-year, $5.5-million study of America's ocean waters, conducted by a panel of politicians, scientists and fishermen, calls for the creation of a new federal agency to control overfishing, pollution and urban encroachment.

The study by the Pew Oceans Commission details a developing crisis in U.S. waters caused by excessive harvests that are wiping out fish stocks, by rivers of pollution spawning "killer algae" and ocean "dead zones," and by runaway development that is gobbling up coastal wetlands and estuaries.

"The oceans are in serious trouble and we cannot ignore them much longer," said Leon E. Panetta, the commission's chairman and former White House chief of staff under President Clinton. "We govern either by leadership or crisis. If the leadership is willing to take some risks, we will be able to avoid the building crisis in our oceans."

Panetta recently hand-carried the commission's recommendations to the White House, urging that President Bush launch a wholesale revision in the way the government looks after the oceans.

Panetta and other commissions said it will take sweeping changes for the nation to restore its collapsing fisheries, protect the coasts, clean up coastal waters and nudge fish farms into sustainable, non-polluting practices.

Some of the key recommended changes are:

* Adoption of a National Ocean Policy Act that would unify and streamline the confusing and sometimes conflicting tangle of laws and agencies that govern the oceans;

* Making the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration an independent agency, separating it from the U.S. Department of Commerce and its inherently conflicting roles of both conserving the ocean and promoting its exploitation;

* Establishment of regional councils of federal and state officials to oversee the management of activities that influence the health of marine ecosystems, from controlling polluted farm and urban runoff coursing into coastal waters to the rule-making that governs where and how much fish can be pulled from the sea;

* Creation of a national system of marine reserves that would be off limits to fishing and other activities.

The 18-member Pew commission, financed by a donation from Pew Charitable Trusts, is the first comprehensive examination of America's oceans since the Stratton Commission in 1969 made recommendations to Congress that led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Stratton Commission was born of fear that aggressive foreign fishing fleets were plundering the oceans off U.S. shores. Now that threat comes from within our borders, Pew commissioners said.

Mostly, it's a case of too many boats chasing too few fish, the commission reported. Yet the laws and governing institutions are antiquated, established when the oceans were considered so vast, they had unlimited resilience to absorb pollutants from land and provide a boundless supply of fish to eat.

"Not only do the oceans have limits, it's becoming increasingly obvious that we have squandered their natural bounty," said Commissioner Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University. "The oceans are a public trust and we have a moral responsibility to restore the bounty for our children and our children's children."

Commissioner Roger Rufe, head of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, said he hopes the report will help Americans understand the problem. "Most people think the greatest threat to the ocean is pollution," said Rufe. "But the real threat to the ocean is overfishing -- large-scale, industrial-type fishing."

The problem is a global one, as scientists recently pointed out with the analysis of fishing data showing that at least 90% of the big tuna, marlin, swordfish, cod and halibut have vanished from the world's oceans. The loss of these and other fish is upsetting the natural balance, leading to the decline in coral reefs, kelp forests and other marine habitats.

The commission focuses on overfishing in U.S. territorial waters, recommending that the U.S. government consider the entire marine ecosystem in setting policies, not just making rules and regulations for one species of fish at a time. It also takes issue with the main way the government sets limits on the annual catch of fish.

As it stands now, the federal government delegates nearly all authority to eight regional fishery management councils, which are dominated by fishing industry representatives. These councils determine how many fish can be caught every year and decide who gets to catch them by divvying up the catch among different groups of fishermen.

The commission didn't call for dissolving these councils, which have been widely criticized as failures. Instead, it recommends giving away half their power by handing the authority to determine yearly catch limits to an independent body that is not subject to the same industry pressures.

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