In the year following release of two groundbreaking reports on the declining health of the nation's coastlines, the continental shelf and ocean waters the situation has done nothing but worsen. The Bush administration's response to the reports on Sept. 19 does little to reverse troubling trends.
Last week the chairmen of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the independent Pew Oceans Commission issued a joint statement calling for swift action to reform the nation's broken system of shorelines management, at the same time responding to the administration's proposed amendments to our federal fisheries management law.
The federal Commission on Ocean Policy warned of a Katrina-like disaster stemming from rapid intense development of vulnerable coastal land. Commission Chairman Adm. James D. Watkins said "The devastation of Hurricane Katrina ... highlights the hundreds of unaddressed recommendations made by the commission."
"Despite the continuous threats of hurricanes and other natural disasters such as nor'easters and tsunamis, populations and poorly planned development are rising along the coasts, increasing the vulnerability of people and property to storms and storm surges," said Pew Commission Chairman Leon E. Panetta. "At the same time, over-fishing is depleting the world's fisheries, red tides are impacting the health of marine species and humans, and coastal waters are being polluted from runoff, putting more pressure on the coasts and their precious resources."
Many hoped the two reports on ocean resources, with broad bipartisan participation and drawing upon the expertise of hundreds of scientists and other specialists, would lead to the end of business as usual. Realization of these hopes will have to await a change in presidents.
The administration's proposals for the future of the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act disregards key commission recommendations and even weakens current protections for over-fished species.
Among other problems, the administration's proposals would:
No longer require NOAA Fisheries to prepare an annual status of the stocks report, reducing agency accountability;
Extend timelines for rebuilding over-fished stocks, delaying possible recovery to sustainable populations;
Weaken current reporting standards for bycatch, opening the door to continued unintentional and wasteful catch of non-target species.
Undermines the public's role in fisheries management by closing off fisheries management meetings and comment periods.
It would be unfair to suggest the administration's plan is all bad. It does nudge the decision-making process toward peer-reviewed, science-based processes, for example.
But the big message of the two commission reports is that we do not have time to waste before making big changes in how we manage ocean-related resources. For far too long, short-term political and economic convenience have won every argument. We simply can't afford more years of free-for-all on our nation's coasts and ocean waters.