Looking Inland On Ocean Pollution

Aiming to reduce pollution threatening ocean ecosystems, a presidential commission favors injecting ocean science into decision-making on traditionally inland issues such as farm runoff, the panel's chairman says.

Ocean pollution often begins hundreds of miles inland, requiring a broader, ecosystem-based approach to controlling it, James Watkins, head of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

He said the commission will recommend such an approach to Congress this fall. It would involve weighing impacts on all species and habitats within a marine ecosystem rather than making decisions fish by fish as if each species were independent.

The new efforts could be organized geographically along the lines of the existing eight regional fishery councils whose primary task now is setting catch limits, he said.

Communities and states would join in determining how to reduce ocean-harming practices and would be helped by more scientific research and a panel of outside experts, according to Watkins. A new White House council headed by an assistant to the president would coordinate all the efforts.

"You can't do ecosystem-based management unless everybody talks to each other," said Watkins, a retired admiral who has been chief of naval operations, energy secretary and AIDS commission chairman.

Watkins has traveled widely, including aboard a nuclear submarine to a Navy ice station in the Arctic, to gather information for his commission's report. He said it is impossible to manage oceans dealing with fisheries and pollution separately.

"You can't separate physics from chemistry, from biology, from geology. When you try to do that, you end up in the management mess we find today," he said. "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 Gulf of Mexico's dead zone, where too little oxygen supports ocean life, fans out for thousands of miles from the Mississippi River Delta.

Next week, a private oceans commission funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4 billion foundation promoting environmental causes, reports on three years of research. Its findings, such as a need for more protected marine reserves, will focus on ocean life in U.S. waters.

"Both these commissions are quite likely to base many of their recommendations on this concept of ecosystem-based management," Jane Lubchenco, a Pew commissioner and Oregon State University marine biologist, told the House Oceans Caucus on Capitol Hill last week.

Watkins and scientists on each of the commissions cited the importance of a new study this month showing industrial fishing fleets have removed as much as 90 percent of the giant tuna, swordfish, marlin and other big fish from the world's oceans.

The study by two scientists in Canada suggests stocks of the biggest fish in the ocean could falter as fishing fleets vie for the last 10 percent.

The area of ocean waters controlled by the United States is almost a quarter larger than the nation's land mass, owing to the exclusive economic zone that stretches out about 200 miles from the continent and Pacific and Atlantic islands.

In 1969, the first federal oceans commission — concerned about foreign fishing fleets operating just off U.S. coasts — gave Congress advice that led to creating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and coastal zone and fishery management laws.
By John Heilprin

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