President George Bush is creating a White House committee to oversee the nation’s ocean policies, with plans to improve research, manage fisheries better and regulate pollution caused by boats.

Responding to a report by a presidential commission, Bush signed an executive order Dec. 17 to launch the Committee on Ocean Policy which will oversee the implementation of a White House Ocean Action Plan outlining specific actions the administration has taken, or plans, to help protect ocean and coastal areas.

“The president is going to advocate for a comprehensive national approach to the responsible use and stewardship of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes over the next generation,” said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The increased focus on the problems of the world’s oceans comes in response to more than 200 recommendations from a presidential commission that reported in September on two and a half years of study. [See “Panel seeks to revamp ocean, coast policies,” Bay Journal, October 2004.]

The recommendations included the better coordination of national ocean policy through new councils and advisers within the White House and the creation of a $4 billion government trust fund to pay for new ocean initiatives.

The president has not agreed to the trust fund. The only new funding identified by Connaughton was $2.7 million to protect coral reefs.

James Watkins, a retired admiral and former chief of naval operations who chaired the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, had predicted the trust fund would be a tough sell politically.

At a time when Bush is trying to rein in spending, it would mean an annual diversion of about four-fifths of the $5 billion in royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling and other payments that now goes to the Treasury. Congress would have to approve it.

After meeting with Bush in the Oval Office for his signing of the executive order, Watkins described Bush’s response to the recommendations as a promising first step that will set in motion the important process of developing an ocean policy.

“The president has spoken of the need for fundamental change in core government operations, and we hope that his plan will extend this vision to our nation’s oceans, coasts and Great Lakes,” said Watkins, who was the first President Bush’s energy secretary.

Watkins and commission staff were analyzing Bush’s response and what money might be available. In any event, he said, the president’s “continuing leadership and a serious commitment to funding are essential in setting the course for a new national ocean policy.”

The administration’s action plan offers little in the way of new programs to control nutrient runoff—which the ocean commission had identified as one of the leading threats to coastal waters—beyond the continued implementation of existing programs, such as Farm Bill conservation initiatives.

But Bush is going beyond the commission’s work with some of his own recommendations, such as reducing air pollution from marine vessels, both nationally and internationally.

He is supporting a market system for managing fisheries that would use tools such as individual fishing quotas to cut down on regulation and improve safety at sea, officials said.

Bush also has ordered Cabinet agencies to pay more heed to what private landowners, states and local governments say about managing the environment, the subject of an executive order in August.

Leon Panetta, who led an independent Pew Oceans Commission that issued a separate report, said Bush’s response “at least indicates an awareness of the crisis facing our oceans.”

“We strongly recommend a national ocean policy be enacted that commits the country to protecting our oceans,” said Panetta, former President Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

Environmentalists’ reactions were mixed.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said the administration’s actions fell short of the major recommendations issued by the ocean commission, but said they were a step in the right direction.

“We need strong leadership to bring back fish stocks, stop ocean pollution, restore dead zones and protect threatened habitats,” said Sarah Chasis, director of NRDC’s Coastal and Water Program. “Elevating this to the cabinet level can help break the bureaucratic gridlock.”

The White House Action Plan is available on the internet at http://www.ocean.ceq.gov

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report