Stating that current programs fail to protect coastal and ocean resources, a new report calls for sweeping changes in federal policies, stepped-up science programs and the initiation of “ecosystem-based management.”

Among the recommended changes, contained in the preliminary report from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, are the creation of a network of Bay Program-like regional councils to address watershed issues affecting coastal resources, and the establishment of a White House-level office to coordinate actions at the federal level.

A final report will go to the president and Congress after a public comment period.

“Our oceans and coasts are in trouble, and we as a nation have a historic opportunity to make a positive and lasting change in the way we manage them before it is too late,” said retired Adm. James D. Watkins, who chairs the commission.

“If the recommendations contained in our report are adopted, we will create sustainable oceans and coasts for many, many years. We will create sustainable ocean resources; sustainable fisheries, sustainable recreation for our children and their children; sustainable economic development; and a sustainable future for our oceans and coasts.”

The commission’s report, called for in legislation passed by Congress in 2000, is the first review of national ocean policy in 35 years. Since that time, more than 37 million people, 19 million homes and countless businesses have been added to coastal areas.

That has resulted in a staggering loss of coastal wetlands, loss of coral reefs, increased pollution and degradation of coastal habitats, according to the commission’s report.

To address the problems, it calls for an “ecosystem-based management approach” that crosses jurisdictional boundaries to address problems from air and water pollution and land development that affect coastal resources.

The report said existing programs to manage oceans and coasts were badly fragmented, and called for a new framework to coordinate ocean policy.

That framework would include a new White House-level National Ocean Council chaired by an assistant to the president that would comprise all of the cabinet secretaries and independent agency directors with ocean-related responsibilities. An advisory panel would be formed to provide nonfederal input to the council.

The commission’s report also said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should be reorganized to better coordinate its many ocean and coastal responsibilities. And, it said overlapping ocean and coastal programs in other agencies should be consolidated where appropriate.

Eventually, it said more fundamental changes to the federal agency structure will be needed to deal with the links between the ocean, land and air.

Recognizing that many of the problems facing the ocean and coastal areas begin on the land—and citing the Chesapeake Bay program as an example—the council also called for creating nonregulatory “regional ocean councils” that cross jurisdictions and address watershed-scale problems affecting coastal and offshore resources.

It also called for improved science to assist decision making, noting that ocean research funding has fallen from 7 percent of the federal research budget to 3.5 percent the past 25 years. The report seeks to double the present $650 million a year spent on ocean and coastal research over the next five years.

It also said better education and outreach efforts were needed to inform the public about ocean-related issues.

Among other recommendations:

  • Local decision makers need to be given help to plan for and guide growth away from sensitive areas and those prone to hazards. This can be done by improving, coordinating and consolidating federal programs that have a role managing coastal areas.
  • To reduce coastal pollution, particularly from runoff, the commission recommended the establishment of measurable water pollution reduction goals for coastal areas.
  • Fishery management needs to move to an ecosystem-based approach to address habitat degradation and the overexploitation of stocks.

Implementing the policy would cost $1.3 billion the first year, $2.4 billion the second, and $3.2 billion annually thereafter, the commission estimated.

The commission began its work in September 2001 with a series of 15 public meetings and 17 additional site visits in every coastal region of the country, including the Chesapeake Bay. It heard testimony from more than 440 experts, including top scientists, environmental organizations, industry, citizens and government officials.

The commission is taking comments from the nation’s governors and interested stakeholders through May 21. After that, it will make revisions and send a final report with recommendations to the president and Congress.

Copies of the report are available at the commission’s web site: www.oceancommission.gov