The Pew Oceans Commission report said depletion of marine life requires "a serious rethinking of ocean law, informed by a new ocean ethic." It urged Congress to enact a National Ocean Policy Act to streamline the government's approach and create national marine reserves that would be protected like wilderness areas.
The panel said a new oceans agency should take over the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and marine-related programs run by departments of Interior and Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It also recommended a White House oceans council and a network of "regional ocean ecosystem councils" to participate in the regulation of farmland and urban runoff into oceans.
The United States' reach over ocean waters spans nearly 4.5 million square miles — nearly 25 percent larger than the nation's land mass — because of the exclusive economic zone stretching about 200 miles from the continent and Pacific and Atlantic islands.
"We are now capable of altering the ocean's chemistry, stripping it of fish and the many other organisms which comprise its rich biodiversity, exploding and bleaching away its coral nurseries, and even reprogramming the ocean's delicate background noise," the report said.
The 18-member commission — including top marine experts, commercial fishermen and elected officials such as Gov. Tony Knowles of Alaska and Gov. George Pataki of New York — is the first to complete a review of U.S. ocean policy in three decades.
The first federal oceans commission worried about foreign fishing fleets operating close to U.S. coasts. Its 1969 recommendations to Congress led to the creation of NOAA and coastal zone management and fishery conservation laws.
"Thirty years later, the threat is not so much other countries coming and taking our fish but it's our own behavior," commission chair Leon Panetta said in an interview.
The second federal oceans commission was ordered by Congress and President Clinton in 2000 to study all marine-related issues and effects of federal ocean-related policies. Its report, capping three years of work, is due by fall.
James Watkins, a retired admiral heading the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, said a new White House oceans council headed by a presidential assistant should coordinate government regulation, scientific research and assistance to communities and states.
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 also will hold sway with Congress.
The Pew commission was initially chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman before she became EPA administrator. She was replaced by Panetta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff.
Panetta said he was surprised to learn that every eight months 11 million gallons of oil — the same amount spilled by tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 — drains from land pollution into oceans. And as commissioners toured coastal areas, Panetta said, fishermen "everywhere we went" were saying "that they were seeing real trouble" and wanted change.
"For centuries we've used the oceans as a dumping ground and just figured that the resources were limitless, and we're finding out that they aren't," said Pat White, a Pew panel member who heads the Maine Lobsterman's Association.