The nation’s oceans face a crisis stemming from pollution, overfishing and rapid coastal development that requires a more active federal role if ocean and coastal ecosystems are to be protected and restored, a three-year study has concluded.

The Pew Oceans Commission report recommended that the nation move away from the “frontier mentality” that had led to excessive exploitation of the oceans and instead make restoration of healthy marine ecosystems a national priority.

“For centuries, we have viewed the oceans as beyond our ability to harm and their bounty beyond our ability to deplete,” said Leon Panetta, chair of the 18-member commission. “The evidence is clear that this is no longer true.”

The bipartisan panel also said a single agency should be established to coordinate ocean programs, which are now fragmented among multiple agencies and departments. Further, it said the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, now coordinated by the EPA, should be moved into the new agency.

The panel issued a 144-page report in June, filled with scores of specific recommendations that would make sweeping changes in everything from the way fisheries are managed to the way agricultural and urban runoff control programs are operated.

Under the vision laid out in its report, watersheds would be managed across jurisdictional lines to reduce coastal pollution, and regional panels would be created to manage fisheries, zone parts of the ocean to accommodate various uses, and protect the most sensitive areas. Federal subsidies for agriculture, transportation and other programs would be linked to successful implementation.

“America’s oceans are in crisis, and the stakes could not be higher,” the report said. Not only are vast natural ecosystems at risk, but so are tens of thousands of jobs that depend on fishing, recreation and tourism, placing the value of healthy ocean ecosystems in the billions of dollars.

Coastal tourism and recreation account for 85 percent of all tourism revenue, the report said, and tourism as a whole is the second largest contributor to the U.S gross domestic product. In California alone, coastal tourism is valued at nearly $10 billion a year. “Without reform, our daily actions will increasingly jeopardize a valuable natural resource and an invaluable aspect of our national heritage,” the report said.

The 18-member commission includes top marine experts, commercial fishermen and elected officials such as former Gov. Tony Knowles of Alaska and Gov. George Pataki of New York.

The private panel funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4 billion foundation created by sons and daughters of the founder of Sun Oil Co. (now Sunoco Inc.), hopes its final report will also hold sway with Congress.

Its recommendations are important because they serve as a marker against which the report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, appointed by the president in 2001, will be measured when it makes recommendations to the president and Congress this fall.

James Watkins, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, agreed that the nation faces “serious ocean and coastal issues” and said that the Pew report would be given “serious consideration as we finalize our recommendations for a comprehensive and coordinated ocean policy for the nation.”

In an interview with the Associated Press shortly before the Pew report was issued, Watkins also endorsed a key concept of the study—that protecting the oceans and coastal areas such as the Gulf of Mexico depended on curbing pollution from inland sources. “One of the major findings is going to be that the oceans don’t start at the coastline; there are 41 states and two Canadian provinces that cause the dead zone in the Gulf. So everyone’s in the ocean business.”

The Pew report, and the upcoming federal report, are the first major re-evaluations of the U.S. ocean policy in more than 30 years. Since then, the nation’s ocean realm has greatly expanded.

Since 1983, the United States has claimed an “exclusive economic zone” that extends 200 miles off the the coast of the mainland, as well as all the islands and territories it controls, such as Guam and American Samoa. Altogether, that means the nation controls 4.5 million miles of ocean—an area 23 percent larger than the land mass of the United States.

Yet those waters are managed through a “hodgepodge of ocean laws and programs” which have failed to protect oceans, coastal areas and the resources they harbor, the Pew report said. The signs are everywhere:

  • Thirty percent of all fish stocks that have been assessed are either overfished or being fished unsustainably. Overfishing affects not only the targeted species, but can also alter the food web in unpredictable ways. Further, some fishing gear such as dredges and bottom trawls damage three-dimensional structures such as oyster beds and coral colonies that provide important habitat for a host of species.
  • Nearly 20,000 acres of coastal wetlands and sensitive estuarine habitats are being lost annually as growing numbers of people press into coastal areas, creating more development, runoff and increased waste. “We are fundamentally changing the natural ecosystems that attract us to the coasts,” the report said.
  • Sixty percent of coastal rivers and bays are moderately or severely degraded by nutrient runoff. As a result, oxygen-depleted “dead zones” now exist in 39 areas around the nation, including the Chesapeake Bay; the frequency of harmful algae blooms is on the rise; and important habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass and kelp beds are declining in coastal areas around the nation.
  • The rate of invasions by foreign “exotic” species has been on the rise since 1970. This “biological pollution,” often stemming from ship ballast discharges, has as much potential to harm coastal ecology as chemical pollution, and the report called for more action to regulate ballast releases.

And pressure on coasts and oceans is expected to increase. More than half of the nation’s population lives in coastal counties, and that number is expected to grow by 25 million people by 2015. The amount of oil and grease that runs off those developed areas every 8 months equals the 11 million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Nowhere is the failure to manage coastal resources more evident than in the Pacific Northwest, the report said, where fragmented governance systems could not halt the decline of the Pacific salmon runs long after the problem was apparent, culminating in a 98 percent reduction in wild salmon runs, the extinction of some salmon populations, and at least 12 major salmon and steelhead trout runs ending up on the endangered species list.

On the other hand, the report cited the Chesapeake Bay Program as an example of “governance that works” by bringing federal and state agencies together to set “clear, ambitious goals” for the Bay and its watershed. Although the report acknowledges that the Bay Program has not achieved many of its goals, it does agree that “pollution has been reduced substantially in the face of dramatic population growth.”

Other examples of successful governance included the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which brings federal and state representatives together to manage migratory fish stocks within three miles of the coast, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which relied on the cooperation of federal and state agencies and stakeholders to develop “ocean zoning” which, among other things, set aside a 2,800-square-mile area of the ocean around the Keys as a marine sanctuary in 1990.

To improve governance nationwide, the report called for Congress to enact a National Ocean Policy Act that would make the protection, maintenance and and restoration of coastal and ocean ecosystems a national policy, and set clear, measurable goals.

To oversee the nation’s ocean policy, the report called for separating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Department of Commerce and incorporating within it ocean and coastal programs from Department of the Interior, the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and National Estuaries Program, marine species aquaculture programs from the Department of Agriculture, and shoreline protection and estuarine restoration activities of the Army Corps of Engineers.

A permanent interagency oceans council should be created to coordinate the government’s other programs that could impact the oceans, the report said. Also, regional ecosystem councils should be formed to manage fisheries, “zone” ocean areas for different uses and designate marine reserves.

To manage runoff from the land—nitrogen runoff was deemed the single largest threat to coastal water quality—the report called for watershed-based plans that limit pollution runoff. It said Congress should amend the Clean Water Act to require actions to control polluted runoff from agricultural and developed areas, and that Congress should link the receipt of agricultural and other federal subsidies to compliance with the Clean Water Act. Also, it said air emissions—a major source of nitrogen—need to be reduced to protect marine environments.

The panel also called for identifying and protecting from development habitat critical for the functioning of coastal ecosystems. It also called for a more active management of coastal growth, including the setting of urban growth boundaries to contain sprawl around metropolitan areas.

It said Congress should make federal funding for transportation and development programs contingent on areas being in compliance with environment laws, and said federal grants and loans should be made only to projects that are consistent with state and local growth management plans.

Also, the panel said federal flood insurance programs, which often promote coastal development, should be reformed so premiums reflect the true risk of coastal hazards such as erosion and hurricanes, and that the Corps of Engineers should be reformed so its projects are both environmentally and economically sound.

It also called for laws to regulate wastewater discharge from cruise ships (in a single week, one cruise ship can generate 210,000 gallons of sewage). And it said more efforts are needed to quantify the levels of toxics in marine habitats and evaluate their effects.

Aquaculture can also threaten water quality and fish stocks. A salmon farm of 200,000 fish releases as much nitrogen as the untreated sewage from 20,000 people. And when farmed fish escape, they can carry diseases that threaten wild fish, or interbreed and weaken native fish stocks.

The report called for a new marine aquaculture policy that sets standards for the industry, and establishes authority for the siting, design and operation of aquaculture facilities.

The Pew commission was initially chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman before she became EPA administrator. She was replaced by Leon Panetta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff.

The full report, “America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change,” is available on the Internet at www.pewoceans.org