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April 2004

The oceans report is in and now it's time to get to work

The federal government's first major report on the state of our oceans in 35 years is a 500-page document of 250 recommendations on how to reverse the gloomy scientific view of our nation's coastal waters. It offers no easy fixes, but perhaps its greatest value is reinforcing that our oceans are in a crisis and we are at risk of losing an invaluable source of food.

It is pleasing to know the report's commission recognizes fishing is not the only human impact. It expands the analysis of our coastal waters beyond simply blaming fishermen. It still squarely points a finger at them, but also considers coastal development and its environmental impact.

The report points out in the past three decades more than 37 million people and 19 million homes were added to coastal areas, as were "countless" businesses. The associated environmental impact is blamed in no small part for the growing "dead zone" at the mouth of Mississippi River - an area about the size of Massachusetts that becomes devoid of life each summer due to severely depleted oxygen levels in the water. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous from the Mississippi River causes this hypoxia, not commercial fishing.

There are other environmental considerations as well. A University of New Hampshire study looked at the Earth's thinning stratosphere as a contributor to declining survival rates of cod larvae in the Gulf of Maine.

The commission report did not analyze overfishing as it relates to the respective impacts of small and large fishing boats. It did not include a study published in the journal Nature that claimed the increase of industrial-scale commercial fishing over the past 50 years led to a 90 percent decline in large fish at the top of the ocean food chain, including cod. The federal government greatly aided the build-up of the large boat fleet through tax credits in the mid-1980s. A better understanding of the different impacts of large-scale commercial-fishing operations and small-boat operators remains sorely needed.

Finding a better way to manage ocean resources may be the most challenging aspect of the recommendations. Adm. James D. Watkins, a former chief of naval operations and chairman of the commission that produced the report, called the existing management system "a byzantine patchwork" of federal and state agencies. He further said the regional fishing councils are "simply not up to the task" of reversing degradation of fish stocks and coastal waters.

The commission urged Congress to create a National Oceans Council of cabinet secretaries that head up the relevant executive branch agencies. Skepticism of further bureaucracy has merit, but the need to have one government organization to praise or blame is essential in moving forward.

The commission recommends regional fisheries management groups be forced to follow the guidance of their scientific advisers on assessing fish stocks and establishing catch limits. This would need third-party oversight to ensure fishermen and scientists have equal input in the process. Accurately gauging the number of fish in the sea is never going to be a purely scientific analysis.

Watkins appropriately called for "ecosystem-based management" in local and regional decision-making, but this requires abandoning the practice of assessing each species or habitat individually. Fishermen condemn the goal of building up all species given the predatorial nature of some stocks, particularly monkfish and dogfish.

The commission recommends establishing a national trust funded by up to $4 billion a year from royalties from offshore energy exploration. Hopefully, this won't serve as an indirect tax that allows oil companies to further disrupt the oceans in pursuit of fossil fuels. The committee, however, would use the money to double federal research spending to $1.3 billion a year.

Research funding would be well spent, but dollars alone haven't solved this problem. The National Marine Fisheries Service 2002 budget of $734 million was more than three times larger than it was in 1994. Research needs to be proactive, such as better understanding the cyclical nature of marine life, its reproduction habits, and how to reduce coastal and global environmental impacts.

-Portsmouth Herald

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