President Bush on Friday established a White House advisory committee to coordinate the nation's ocean policies and begin considering hundreds of recommendations from a presidential commission on how to restore collapsing fisheries and polluted oceans.
Bush set up the Cabinet-level committee as part of his legally required response to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy; that panel of presidential appointees spent nearly three years studying the nation's oceans.
The details of Bush's plan were not available Friday. But an outline did not include more funding or any bold legislative initiatives.
Instead, it called for setting federal research priorities, building a network of buoys to observe ocean and atmospheric conditions, working with local officials to protect coral reefs and giving some fishermen an ownership stake in their fishing grounds as incentive to catch fish in a more sustainable way.
Bush's chief environmental advisor, James T. Connaughton, said that the new Committee on Ocean Policy, which he will lead, would consider the commission's 212 recommendations in the coming months.
"They gave us a list of things they knew would take some time for development," said Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The White House's go-slow approach brought measured response from James D. Watkins -- a retired admiral and chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy -- who characterized the new Cabinet-level panel as a "promising first step."
Conservation groups, however, asserted Friday that the White House was squandering a historic opportunity to cure the ocean's ill health, given how the president's commission had completed the first comprehensive analysis of the oceans in 35 years and already had charted a new course for recovery.
"We are looking for bolder leadership than that," said Roger T. Rufe Jr., president of the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. "The president picked 16 people who studied this for three years and came up with 200 or so common-sense recommendations. I would hope that the White House would do more than just bring on more study."
But some commercial fishing representatives applauded the White House's approach. "It is our impression that the Bush administration doesn't want to create a revolution but work on an evolutionary manner to solve ocean issues," said David Benton, director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, which represents 85% of Alaska's fishing vessels and packing houses. "This is a positive step. We would not want to set up something that is hasty or doomed to failure, or something that will provide a playground for lawyers filing lawsuits."
The commission has advocated weakening the authority of industry-dominated regional fishery management councils.
The Committee on Ocean Policy will be made up of leaders and staff from 18 agencies and departments, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the Commerce Department, which contains the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It will also include the Defense Department's Joint Chiefs of Staff, and assistants to the president for National Security Affairs, Homeland Security and economic policy.
Bush signed an executive order Friday empowering the committee to "coordinate the activities of executive departments and agencies regarding ocean-related matters in an integrated and effective manner to advance the environmental, economic and security interests of present and future generations of Americans."
Such a mission is broader than the recommendation of the Commission on Ocean Policy, said Sarah Chasis, director of the water and coastal program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There needs to be a clear directive to the committee: to protect and restore the health of the oceans."