Oceana, a non-profit international ocean advocacy group, gave mixed reviews to the preliminary report released today by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP). While crediting the commission for acknowledging major threats to our oceans and recommending improved coordination between federal agencies and ocean policy makers, Oceana criticized the report for failing to offer strong, detailed solutions that would significantly improve the protection of ocean waters, wildlife, and habitats.
“The oceans have been mismanaged for decades, to the point that they’re now on the brink of collapse,” said Ted Morton, Oceana’s Federal Policy Director. “The commission’s report acknowledges as much, and we applaud it for recognizing the oceans as vital ecosystems that must be treated as such. Unfortunately, many of the recommendations rely too heavily on voluntary approaches and minor changes to existing systems that have proven ineffective.”
The Commission calls for a “movement towards” managing oceans as ecosystems by endorsing the voluntary creation of regional councils comprised of state, territorial, tribal, and local officials. Though fully supportive of the importance of ecosystem-based protection, Oceana criticized the actual proposal, saying it gives the councils no authority to develop comprehensive plans for protecting, maintaining, or restoring ocean waters and wildlife. The councils also would not be required to meet any national standards for greater ocean protection.
Oceana also criticized the report for failing to emphasize the importance of strengthening or enforcing water quality laws and programs to deal with the problem of water and coastal pollution. Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Pollution Program Director, called the omission “a major missed opportunity.”
Even with its faults, Morton said the report, together with the recommendations set forth in last summer’s independently-funded Pew Oceans Commission report, would give U.S. policy-makers solid guidance to begin reforming ocean management policies.
Oceana Calls for Better Enforcement of CurrentOceanProtection Laws
Noting that several years could pass before new, significant ocean management policies take hold, Oceana called on Congress and the Administration to take several immediate steps to start protecting the oceans.
“There are good, existing laws already on the books that, if enforced, could make real differences,” said Morton. “In addition, there are strong proposals to close loopholes and strengthen basic ocean laws that deserve attention.”
The nation’s primary fishery management law requires the government to protect habitat for fish, though the federal fisheries agency and its regional bodies have done little to enforce it. Ancient deep-sea corals that provide shelter and breeding grounds for thousands of fish populations are rapidly being destroyed by bottom trawling nets, which are dragged indiscriminately over huge swaths of the ocean floor. Last month, Oceana petitioned the Secretary of Commerce, Donald Evans, to require regional fisheries councils to start enforcing the existing law and protect fragile, irreplaceable deep sea corals.
Another current law directs the federal government to take measures to minimize bycatch, which is the unwanted fish and other sea life caught and thrown overboard dead or dying by fishermen. Last year, Congress doubled funding for fishery observers – scientists who work alongside commercial fisherman and record what is actually caught. Even with the increase, most of the nation’s commercially-managed fisheries remain without observers to generate statistically reliable data.
“Full funding of the observer program is absolutely critical. We need to know how much bycatch there really is so we can reduce this unnecessary waste and protect America’s valuable fisheries,” said Courtney Sakai, director of Oceana’s Stop DirtyFishing Campaign.
Also, a loophole in current law allows cruise ships to dump raw sewage just three miles from shore and discharge inadequately treated sewage and wastewater virtually anywhere. One large cruise ship can produce up to 25,000 gallons of sewage and 250,000 gallons of “graywater” from showers, sinks, and dishwashers each day. Congress is considering legislation to close the loopholes in the law and control this type of pollution.