- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

Earlier this week, the Pew Oceans Commission released its report describing the troubled state of what is largely an invisible trust. While not all of the policy recommendations made by the commission may be practicable, and the report might have been more balanced, there is little denying its central point: Americans must become better stewards of the seas.

According to the report, several factors are contributing to the “crisis confronting our oceans,” including the destruction of coastal wetlands; degradation from nutrient runoff; invasions from invasive species; and overfishing of ecologically and commercially important fishes such as marlin, swordfish and cod. The evidence for the last point is hard to disagree with, especially given the paper published last month in the scientific journal Nature suggesting that over the last half-century, 90 percent of large predatory fishes have been lost from the oceans.

Yet, not all has been lost, according to former Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In an interview, he said that while his agency is always looking for ways to improve how it deals with oceans, “the total picture is that we have had some management successes over the last five to 10 years.” As evidence, he pointed to the Status of U.S. Fisheries Report 2002, released last month by NOAA. According to the report, four species of fish were taken off the over-fished list last year — the redfish, the scup, the South Atlantic gag grouper and the Georges Bank/mid-Atlantic silver hake. The report also noted that, thanks to federal management, stocks of 70 other species of fish are being rebuilt.

Unfortunately, by failing to receive testimony from NOAA’s current leaders, commission members missed an important opportunity to receive input from important ocean policy-makers. According to House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, California Republican, Pew commissioners also overlooked the 1996 passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which has been useful in identifying difficulties in domestic fisheries management.

That said, neither the commission’s findings nor its recommendations should be dismissed out of hand, particularly when coupled with the Nature paper. For better custodianship of the seas, Pew commissioners argued the adoption of ecosystem-based ocean management. It also called for Congress to pass a Nation Ocean Policy Act, instead of the “hodgepodge of narrow laws” that currently govern ocean policy. Given that ocean management decisions are currently made by many overlapping government agencies, including not only NOAA, but also the EPA and the Interior and Agricultural Departments, the commission’s call for an independent oceans agency deserves scrutiny. Perhaps its most startling recommendation was for a moratorium on the expansion of fish farming until national standards have been established.

Both the Pew commissioners and their critics agree that more information is needed — particularly with regard to ocean ecosystems. As Vice Adm. Lautenbacher said, “We are in the infancy of ecosystem management.” Acquiring a better understanding of the species that make up marine food webs and their interactions will take a great deal of additional time and effort, but true ocean management is impossible without it.

Later this fall, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy is expected to release a comprehensive, coordinated approach toward better ocean custodianship. It will come at a critical time, given the Nature paper and the Pew report. Clearly, there are many ways for Americans to become better stewards of the seas.

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