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World Ocean Day celebrated with new aquamarine proposals
Scripps Howard News Service


June 07, 2005

Washington is awash this week with proposals to protect the nation's coastal and offshore waters, but prospects for concrete results remain murky.

Two new reports say action is urgently needed to restore the United States' marine resources before environmental degradation reaches a point of no return.

Using the 13th annual World Ocean Day (celebrated June 8) as an occasion for action, the Bush administration unveiled a bill Tuesday that would extend marine aquaculture operations - currently limited to three miles offshore - to federal waters up to 200 miles from shore.

On Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., plans to introduce a sweeping oceans bill that includes many of the recommendations of two blue ribbon oceans commissions - the congressionally chartered U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission - that issued reports in the past two years. The same day, members of the House oceans caucus are set to introduce a bill that includes recommendations from the ocean commissions.

Also floating around Congress are:

- A bill by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., to enact many of the reforms recommended by the commissions for managing the nation's fisheries.

Ocean problems at a glance
Scripps Howard News Service

- More than a third of the nation's coastal wetlands are in poor condition and another 44 percent are "threatened for aquatic life or human use."

- Coastal environmental conditions are the most severely degraded in the Northeast and Puerto Rico. Conditions are "fair" but leaning toward "poor" along the Gulf Coast, West Coast and the Great Lakes. Conditions along the Southeast coast are good.

- Coastal areas are the most developed areas of the nation. They account for 17 percent of the nation's land area, but 53 percent of its population.

- The U.S. commercial fishing industry employs 170,000 people and a fleet of 123,300 vessels. It's the fifth largest fishing fleet in the world, contributing nearly $29 billion to the economy.

- Recreational fishing contributes an estimated $25 billion to the U.S. economy.

- Fish in 22 percent of coastal sites sampled by EPA exceeded federal guidelines for contaminants such as mercury and pesticides.

- In 2002, nearly two-thirds of the nation's coastal areas, excluding the Great Lakes, were subject to state fishing advisories warning against consumption of one or more species of fish because of high levels of mercury, PCBs, or other contaminants.

- Nearly a third of coastal and Great Lakes beaches closed or issued a health advisory at least once during the 2002 swimming season, primarily because of high bacteria levels related to sewage spills or storm water runoff.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

- Legislation to ratify the United Nations' Convention on Law of the Sea, a treaty that governs international waters.

- A bill backed by the White House to give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration legal standing, which was neglected when the agency was created.

"I think this year we're going to see a raft of legislation moving forward in packages and in pieces," Director James Connaughton of the White House Council on Environmental Quality said at a congressional briefing this week on the administration's Ocean Action Plan.

The White House, which was legally required to respond to the ocean policy commission's report, released the action plan in December. The plan embraces many of the two commissions' findings, but critics say it is long on rhetoric and short on money and specifics.

"I think they are just mouthing platitudes," said environmental advocate Roberta Elias of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It was very general and mainly pointed to a lot of things NOAA was already doing that they liked."

The White House also created a committee on ocean policy, which Connaughton chairs. The committee held its first meeting in April.

The action plan gives the committee 18 months to report back with recommendations, but since there is no starting date specified in the plan it's unclear when it would actually have to report.

The administration's aquaculture bill is an attempt to boost a domestic industry. The United States imports more than 70 percent of the seafood Americans eat and at least 40 percent is farmed overseas.

William Hogarth, NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries, said commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Mexico could disappear in the next 10 years because of competition from foreign shrimp farms.

Aquaculture in federal waters will be done in "an environmentally sensitive and compatible manner," Hogarth promised.

But environmentalists said the administration's bill does not include recommendations by the two ocean commissions that environmental standards be established for fish farming, which has the same problems involving animal waste and overuse of antibiotics that plague factory farms on land.

"Don't they know they're supposed to celebrate World Ocean Day, not dump on it?" said Gerald Leape, marine conservation director at the National Environmental Trust. "This opens the door to a significant expansion of agricultural operations in federal waters without any mandatory standards to ensure (aquaculture) won't cause the same impacts it does along the coast."


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(Reach Joan Lowy at lowyj(at)

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