As the White House lays out its priorities for the nation when it releases its budget , Oceana, a leading environmental advocacy group, called on President Bush and Congress not to forget about the oceans and their habitats. The new 108th Congress will consider many budgetary and legislative proposals affecting our oceans, including offshore oil drilling, conserving fish populations, protecting marine mammals, and implementing an international treaty to control dangerous pollutants.
“President Bush's budget-his statement of the administration's priorities for the coming fiscal year-is due on Capitol Hill today,” explained Ted Morton, Oceana's policy director. “We are concerned that investments for greater ocean protection will be neglected in the Administration's package. ”
Morton outlined the oceans' plight, highlighting harmful Congressional action and inaction. “Last year the oceans withstood a tidal wave of plans to weaken ocean protections. Strong public support and the leadership of a few champions on Capitol Hill blocked most of these rollbacks from becoming law. Now, several more chairmen of key environmental committees are opponents to strong environmental protections and our oceans are in more danger than ever before. Powerful special interests are likely to double their efforts to undermine vital, long-term ocean protections. Congress needs to act to protect our oceans from destructive fishing practices and polluters.”
Fish populations have been particularly hard hit. Phil Kline, a former commercial fisherman who leads Oceana's fish program, said, “Scientists estimate that approximately 44 million pounds of fish-roughly 25 percent of the world's total landings-are discarded each year in commercial fisheries. Forty-five percent of the nation's few adequately monitored fish populations are either overfished or are getting there.“ Kline went on to say, “Efforts to protect vital fish nursery and breeding habitats from destructive fishing gear and pollution have virtually stalled. It is clear that we need to be doing more to restore fish populations and habitats. We hope the new Congress will reject proposals to roll back the progress we have already made.”
In an overview of the 108th Congressional agenda, Morton identified the following issues as a few of the leading ocean issues:
Fish Conservation and Management. Last year, both the House Resources and Senate Commerce Committees proposed weakening the nation's principal ocean fish management law - the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Provisions in these proposals weakened the key conservation requirements in current law: minimizing bycatch (catch of non-targeted wildlife), protecting essential fish habitat, and stopping overfishing.
Representative Sam Farr (D-California) offered a reauthorization package with significant improvements in the way the nation protects its fish populations and habitats. Despite support from 102 members of Congress, the bill received little attention during the Resources Committee debate.
Representative Joel Hefley (R-Colorado) introduced another landmark bill to protect sensitive cold water corals, boulders, and other undersea rocky structures from the damaging impacts of bottom trawls. That bill also failed to emerge from the Resources Committee.
Department of Defense Authorization. The Washington Post recently reported that the Department of Defense is planning to resubmit a proposal to exempt the military from complying with several vital environmental and public health laws. The Pentagon is pushing to gut one of the cornerstones of the Marine Mammal Protection Act - the definition of “harassment.” If passed, this legislation will likely result in injury and death to many more whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. Last year, the General Accounting Office reported that the military has failed to show that complying with environmental laws has affected training and readiness.
Pollution in the Oceans. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) mandates the phase out and ultimate elimination of POPs - a dangerous class of chemicals including dioxins, PCBs, and certain pesticides. These chemicals pose a global hazard because of their toxicity to people and animals on land and in the sea, their persistence in the environment, their ability to travel long distances, and their propensity to accumulate in food chains. Although President Bush claimed to support the treaty at a Rose Garden ceremony in 2001 and the Administration signed the treaty one month later, the implementing legislation that was submitted by the White House last Congress failed to provide critical domestic authority for banning any new prohibited POPs in the future. Senator James Jeffords (I-Vermont) introduced a strong bill last year that did include this “adding mechanism” for the future. Chemical industry interests and key Administration officials effectively stalled progress on the bill.
Other legislative rollbacks which might arise include repealing existing standards to control bycatch of marine mammals during commercial fishing, blocking efforts to improve protections of endangered and threatened sea turtles, restricting the application of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in ocean waters, and opening up areas of the coast to offshore oil drilling.
Morton added, “Our oceans and their habitats belong to all of us. The American public strongly supports efforts to protect them. Congress and the Bush Administration should act on the public's behalf, not on behalf of big corporations and other powerful special interests.”
Oceana is a non-profit international advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the world's oceans through policy advocacy, science, law and public education. Founded in 2001, Oceana's constituency includes members and activists from more than 190 countries and territories who are committed to saving the world's marine environment. In 2002, the American Oceans Campaign became part of Oceana's international effort to protect ocean eco-systems and sustain the circle of life. Oceana, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has additional offices in key U.S. coastal areas and will open offices in Latin America and Europe in 2003.