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An Ocean of Consensus

June 14, 2004

President Bush might have been surprised when his handpicked panel on ocean policy came out with a sweeping draft plan to protect the ocean before damage became irreparable.

The report this spring by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy -- congressionally mandated, presidentially appointed -- echoes a year-old study by the private Pew Oceans Commission warning that fish populations and large sections of coastal waters have been ravaged by overfishing, pollution and a scattershot approach to regulation.

The similarity between the reports is interesting because the Pew commission was made up mostly of conservationists, while the federal panel had a large contingent of industry representatives. But both groups have a big stake in a healthy ocean.

Both panels said that without wholesale retooling of policy, neither ecological health nor jobs and fisheries would thrive. Coastal development must be more tightly planned to avoid runoff of oil, trash and human and farm waste. Commercial fishing should be under centralized control, with scientists, not the fishing industry, setting limits.

The federal report also recommends placing ocean-related programs under a national oceans council, thus bringing coherence to more than 140 laws and rules governing the ocean that now are scattered among 20 agencies.

It's a strong blueprint for stemming and reversing damage to the ocean, but sections of it could prove troublesome and should be revised.

Chief among these is the recommendation that the nation fund $3 billion in ocean initiatives through offshore oil and gas drilling. Despite its 450-page length, the report never mentions whether that revenue would come from existing operations or by expanding drilling. It's natural to suspect the latter, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly does. In his letter to the commission, he said he supported the report overall but objected to any expansion in drilling.

The commission should insert clear protections from increased oil drilling as it drafts a final report based on the comments of Schwarzenegger and other governors and forwards it to Bush and Congress next month. Congress already is drawing up legislation, but Bush has so far been reluctant to support major environmental protections in any arena. This is the time and place to change that.

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