New Commerce Chief Must Protect Collapsing Oceans

Monterey County Herald, January 12, 2005
By Leon E. Panetta and Andrew Sharpless
Our oceans are on the verge of irreversible collapse. Scientists have found that 90 percent of the world’s big fish have disappeared since the 1950s. Postmortems on dolphins have shown many to be so full of toxins that they would be labeled hazardous waste. The total number of northern right whales, once prolific in our waters, is down to just a few hundred. By the government’s own standards, one-third of all U.S. fisheries are overfished.

Fortunately, President Bush can address the crisis in America’s oceans right now. The Senate just completed an initial hearing, last Wednesday, on his newly nominated secretary of commerce, Carlos M. Gutierrez, and is expected to vote on confirmation shortly after reconvening Jan. 20. The new secretary will have the power to significantly change the way we protect and manage our ocean waters, wildlife and habitats.

Although few people know it, the secretary of commerce is primarily responsible for setting the nation’s ocean policy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) accounts for 60 percent of the Commerce Department’s budget and nearly one-third of its staff. It regulates all fishing and many other commercial activities in our oceans — from state boundaries to the end of the continental shelf — 200 miles out. The secretary can implement many of the recommendations made in May 2003 by the independent Pew Oceans Commission and in September 2004 by the Bush-appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP).

Both the Pew Commission and the USCOP confirmed what leading ocean scientists have said for years: Our oceans are in crisis. Both commissions made it clear that half-measures are no longer enough. Substantial change must be made quickly to ensure that America’s (and the world’s) oceans continue to be a source of sustenance and delight for future generations.

The incoming secretary of commerce can and should use his authority to reform ocean management as we know it. Both commissions called for changing the current fragmented management system, which has resulted in heavy overfishing and pollution, to a more science-based one that treats our oceans as ecosystems. Today, politics and short-term economics — rather than science — are the guiding force in determining who can fish and how much fish they can take out of our oceans. We need to make sure that the government treats the oceans as what they are — an ecosystem and a resource that belongs to all of us.

There are several other steps an ocean-friendly commerce secretary can take. He should push for increased federal investments in ocean protection, research and management. The fishery observer program, for example, should be fully funded. Observers are scientists assigned to commercial fishing boats whose job is to count the fish and sea life accidentally caught and typically thrown back, injured, dying or dead (commonly referred to as by-catch). The observer program is the best means of gaining the information needed to assess and end this waste of sea life — estimated to be at least 10 percent of the global fish catch. Unfortunately, it remains severely underfunded. Of the more than 300 U.S. commercial fisheries managed by NOAA, approximately 23 use observers.

The new secretary can also take steps to protect ocean habitat from destructive fishing practices, such as bottom trawling. Both the New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery management councils, which report to the secretary of commerce, have recently taken steps to protect deep sea corals — some of which may be a thousand years old. Actions are under consideration in other councils. The secretary can and should ensure that all the councils extend real protections to corals, in all of our oceans.

Last, the new secretary must work with other agency leaders to ensure that consumers know what is in the fish they eat. With the recent warnings by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and EPA about poisonous mercury contamination in seafood, it is critical that the leaders of these and other agencies make sure we get the information we need to make educated decisions about the food we eat.

As the nation’s highest-ranking official responsible for the oceans, the incoming Commerce Department secretary can begin to address the crisis in our waters. His actions are President Bush’s next best chance to show that he is committed to ensuring healthy oceans for generations to come.

LEON PANETTA is the former chief of staff to President Clinton and chairman of the Pew Oceans Commission. ANDREW SHARPLESS is the CEO of Oceana, a non-profit organization working to protect and restore the world’s oceans. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.


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