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April 22, 2004

An ocean of responsibility: Report urges better management of 3.4 million nautical miles

News and Information

The United States now has sovereign responsibility under international law for much of the health and sustainable use of 3.4 million square nautical miles of the earth’s surface – considerably more area than the U.S. continental land mass.

“They are our newest public lands and we need a sophisticated and well designed system for management,” says Marc Hershman, University of Washington professor of marine affairs and member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which publicly issued its preliminary report Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

It has been 34 years since the last comprehensive report on oceans and coasts. Unveiled at the National Press Club, the commissioners said the nation must seize this historic opportunity, while it is still possible to reverse distressing declines, seize exciting opportunities and sustain the oceans, coasts and valuable resources for future generations. Hershman was in Washington, D.C., for the press conference and several days of briefings and Congressional hearings.

Available at http://oceancommission.gov/, the commission’s report will provide a blueprint for a coordinated, comprehensive national ocean policy for the 21st Century. The public is invited to send comments to the ocean commission’s Web site.

“In the past we used the ocean and coastal areas for specific resource extraction and designed processes to capture its wealth. Today we have to treat areas of the ocean as places – described and characterized holistically, and understood for all of their geographic, esthetic, historical, natural and human use components,” says Hershman, who is an expert on protecting and using coastal areas, developing seaports and the laws and policies governing U.S. ocean resources. Fellow Washingtonian William Ruckelshaus, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, also served on the commission.

“Communication and transportation technologies now allow us to explore, measure and use ocean and coastal areas in new and exciting ways,” Hershman says. “But the management system we have developed is not up to the task. It is divided among scores of agencies at all levels of government, is split along the lines of specific resources, and is carved up into jurisdictional zones that make no sense ecologically.

“Some dimensions of the oceans and coasts get no attention at all.”

The new report, for the first time, provides a coordinated view from the local level up to the federal level. It is based on a series of 15 public meetings and 17 site visits in every coastal region of the country and the Great Lakes. The commission was assisted in preparing its report by a Scientific Advisory Committee, tasked with providing the commission the best scientific information available, that included three faculty members from the UW: Ray Hilborn of fishery and aquatic sciences, Ed Miles of marine affairs and Robert Spindel of the Applied Physics Laboratory.

Since the fall of 2001, the commission has heard testimony from 440 of the nation’s top ocean scientists and researchers, environmental organizations, industry, citizens and government officials. At public hearings in Seattle, for instance, the commission heard from UW members of its Scientific Advisory Committee and other experts including Arthur Nowell, dean of the UW College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences.

The overhaul and redesign recommended by the ocean commission is urgent, and cannot wait for another day, Hershman says.

“Adding up the signals of change presents a scary picture: global climate change patterns will hammer coastal zones, fish population declines are endangering environments and fishing communities, pollution forces beach closures and endangers shellfish resources, coastal development reduces habitats and threatens wildlife nurseries.

“There are equal signals about lost opportunities that force dependence on imports and slow technological and economic progress, for example, renewable ocean energy lacks a focal point and regime in our government structure, offshore aquaculture could be an important food source but the research is inadequate, marine biotechnology holds enormous promise but has no promoting organization, new marine transportation technologies could relieve urban and highway congestion but lack enough attention from federal and state planners.”

The report will be the subject of a UW campus event May 18, 3:30 p.m. in Parrington Hall, and arrangements are under way for a June meeting about regional ocean governance.

The preliminary report is called the “governors’ draft” because by law governors are invited to provide comments before the report is submitted to the president and Congress. After considering these and comments from the public, the revised report will be submitted in the summer of 2004.

“Because the issues and needs are multi-faceted, the governmental response must be comprehensive,” Hershman says. “The ocean commission report calls for new governmental arrangements, change in management and policies, aggressive education programs, renewed research, and coast and ocean observation systems. It reflects equal concern for addressing today’s problems, and for enhancing our capacity to identify and tackle the problems of the future.”