The United States should dramatically overhaul its approach to ocean policy and double spending on marine research to avoid expensive ecological catastrophes, says an independent panel of political and science heavyweights. "U.S. ocean governance is in disarray [and] … the status quo is unacceptable," the Pew Oceans Commission concludes in a report released today. But it's not clear if Congress and the White House are ready to sail into such politically treacherous waters.
The 18-member panel, created by the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia and led by former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, is attempting to follow in the footsteps of the influential Stratton Commission. In 1969, that panel issued a report that led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a host of important ocean-related policies. But those decades-old solutions, says the Pew panel, are no match for today's problems, which range from overfishing to coastal sprawl.
The panel recommends that Congress start by passing legislation that declares the government's priority to be healthy oceans, not maximizing economic return. It also calls for merging the government's fragmented ocean programs into a new NOAA that's muscular and independent of the industry-oriented Department of Commerce, which currently houses the oceans agency. The new NOAA would oversee a regional network of planning bodies charged with developing protection plans and establishing a robust system of marine reserves. Annual spending on research would double, to about $1.5 billion, so that "science can provide the platform needed for ecosystem-based management that wasn't there 30 years ago," says panelist Charles Kennel, head of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
Although many of the recommendations "aren't new," the report may be an important catalyst, says Carolyn Thoroughgood, dean of the College of Marine Studies at the University of Delaware in Newark. "Reorganizing government is very tough; it's going to take unusual leadership." Still, marine advocates hope that the Pew recommendations will gain momentum from similar suggestions due later this year from a government-appointed panel led by retired Admiral James Watkins. They'll be disappointed if the two reports don't at least kick off a serious debate about better ways to design and implement U.S. ocean policy.