Final Ocean Commission Report Cites Urgent Need for Action

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Publication date: 
8 October 2004

"Our oceans...are in trouble," Admiral James Watkins testified to a Senate committee recently. "Our failure to properly manage the human activities that affect the nation's oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes is compromising their ecological integrity, diminishing our ability to fully realize their potential, costing us jobs and revenue, threatening human health, and putting our future at risk," he declared in a written statement. On September 20, Watkins delivered the final report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy to President Bush and congressional leaders, and he appeared the following day before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to describe the report's recommendations. The commission's "overriding message," he said, is "the need to act now, while it is still possible to reverse the distressing declines." The final version of the report, Watkins said, contains "numerous clarifications" that were added in response to public comments on the preliminary version. The final report is available at The preliminary report and its science-related provisions were highlighted in prior FYIs (see and

As Chair of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Watkins praised the "enormous contribution" of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) for initiating the legislation that established the commission. The final report, Watkins said, contains 212 recommendations that are primarily aimed at the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, and that constitute "balanced, workable solutions for some of the most pressing problems." Among other actions, the commission calls for establishment of a Cabinet-level National Ocean Council, a President's Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy, and regional councils to bring together the many state and local stakeholders; a five-year doubling of the federal investment in ocean and coastal research; development of an Integrated Ocean Observing System; enhancement of public education and outreach; and passage of an organic act that codifies the existence of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

After receiving comments on the preliminary report, Watkins said, the commission added more details on the estimated cost of the recommendations, clarified the role of state governments, and expanded the discussion of the ocean component of climate change. It also addressed concerns that the proposed Ocean Policy Trust Fund, intended to help support implementation of the recommendations through revenues from oil and gas drilling and other activities in federal waters, might unintentionally promote such activities. The commission estimates the total additional cost to implement its suggestions at approximately $1.5 billion in the first year and $3.9 billion per year when all are fully implemented. "The urgent need for action is clear," Watkins concluded, and the report "sends a strong signal that the time is ripe for change."

Now that the commission has submitted the results of its work, the Administration has 90 days to produce a response. The NOAA Administrator, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr., stated that much of the report was "in line with" existing Administration programs and priorities, and promised that the Administration would take "the commission's findings and recommendations very seriously." He referred listeners to a new web site ( set up by the White House Council on Environmental Quality to describe existing programs and future responses to the report.

A second panel of witnesses commended the commission's report, although some suggested that it did not go far enough. Berrien Moore of the University of New Hampshire said he chaired a NOAA Science Advisory Board Research Review Team whose conclusions on strengthening NOAA were "generally consistent" with the relevant commission recommendations. Given the fact that implementing the commission report would require that NOAA take on substantial new responsibilities, he argued that transforming NOAA into an independent agency outside the Department of Commere was "probably essential." However, he acknowledged that "evolutionary steps" would probably be needed. D. James Baker of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, who was the longest-serving Administrator of NOAA, heading the agency from 1993 to 2001, supported the commission's report but agreed that NOAA was "hampered by having to operate within the Department of Commerce;" as a consequence, he added, "critical programs are constrained and budget priorities are ignored." Vice Admiral Roger Rufe of the Ocean Conservancy, and a former member of the Pew Oceans Commission, said the two commissions "spoke with one voice" in stating that "bold, visionary action" was necessary to save the oceans.

"The overall impression of the report is one of urgency," said Commerce Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ). "I don't want this report to languish in the dustbins of history," added Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME). But she warned that "considerable strength" would be needed in both the House and Senate to "make sure we follow up on these recommendations." Concerns for the state of the oceans has been demonstrated in both chambers; Watkins noted appreciatively that, in the last year, at least 63 bills related to this issue have been introduced. But as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) remarked, Congress is "running out of days here." Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), who appeared as a witness at the Senate hearing, indicated that if the Senate could take the lead in producing a comprehensive ocean policy bill, "I think the House will respond appropriately."

Asked what Congress should do first, given the limited time left in the session, Watkins said the recommendations in general should be considered as "a package deal." But he urged, "as a first step," that Congress pass an organic act for NOAA and give it independent budget authority. While he hoped that NOAA might eventually be removed from the Commerce Department and set up as an independent Department of Natural Resources, he thought such a move in the near-term would be "politically unacceptable" and "waste a lot of time."

A number of bills have now been introduced to authorize NOAA and enact some or all of the commission's recommendations. Recently, the House Science Committee's Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee marked up a NOAA authorization act, H.R. 4546, on September 29. In the Senate, the Commerce Committee on September 22 passed a comprehensive ocean policy bill, S. 2647, the "Ernest F. Hollings National Ocean Policy and Leadership Act." However, none are likely to reach the House or Senate floor before Congress heads home this weekend, not to return until after the elections.