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Sea Change for Oceans Policy?

SEATTLE--A report due out next month will urge a major overhaul in the way the United States studies, manages, and protects the oceans. Scientists hope that the federally mandated Commission on Ocean Policy, whose conclusions will parallel those of last year's privately funded Pew Oceans Commission, will help the country reverse a long-running pattern of overharvested fish populations, damaged critical habitat, and degraded marine ecosystems.

The 16-member commission, mandated by the Oceans Act of 2000 and appointed by President George W. Bush, will culminate a 3-year effort next month with a draft report to state governors and the public. Commission members presented preliminary outlines of their upcoming recommendations here yesterday at the annual AAAS meeting.

The report cites the current chaotic state of ocean policy, distributed among 20 laws, a dozen federal agencies, and 60 congressional committees. To bring order, it will recommend establishing an interagency National Oceans Council, reporting to the president. The commission will also encourage the creation of local, state, and regional councils that would develop their own management plans. Pilot programs run by regional councils would build local support for federal legislation. "We've got to engage people at the local level in wrestling with their own problems," says commissioner and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus. "Government's role should be to empower them to do that, and then get out of the way."

The report will also encourage a shift in the focus of marine science in an effort to reverse the economic toll from declining fisheries and polluted coastlines. Whereas managers have long regulated fisheries one species at a time, the report will urge a more holistic "ecosystem-based management" approach that complements a drive to establish large-scale marine protected areas to preserve intact ecosystems. The report will urge a doubling of funding for oceans research, which currently takes up less than 4% of the federal research budget. Other recommendations would improve data management and public education, along with a regulatory regime for emerging issues such as bioprospecting, aquaculture, offshore wind and wave energy facilities, and ocean research observatories, according to Commissioner Andrew Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire, Durham.

No one expects smooth sailing for reforming a system fraught with political, economic, and scientific tensions. But the broad agreement between the two commissions bodes well, say scientists. Pew Commissioner Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University, Corvallis, said that, together, the reports will help "the country articulate a clear vision for what it wants [and how] to manage oceans as a public trust, for the common good, and in perpetuity."

Related sites
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy
Pew Oceans Commission
Center for SeaChange, which will work to promote recommendations of both commissions