By JOAN LOWY
Scripps Howard News Service
June 07, 2005
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.
- 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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