Troubled Oceans

Five years have elapsed since the Pew Oceans Commission’s seminal report urging prompt action to arrest the alarming decline of America’s ocean resources.

Four years have elapsed since a blue- ribbon presidential commission said much the same thing, urging special attention to problems like overfishing and the deterioration of coastal wetlands and estuaries.

Despite an occasional burst of energy, however, the Bush administration and Congress have left much to be done. And time is running out.

As is true with many environmental issues – climate change comes immediately to mind – the states have done a better job. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have either passed legislation or established a regulatory structure to better manage their coastal waters.

California, always at the leading edge, has begun setting up a network of fully protected zones where fish can flourish with minimal commercial intrusion.

These actions show that progress is possible and challenge the White House and Congress to do better.

President George W. Bush has expressed interest in leaving a positive “blue legacy.” Last year, he created one of the biggest protected marine reserves in the world – 138,000 square miles of largely unspoiled reefs and shoals near Hawaii. He should create at least one and possibly more such reserves elsewhere in American waters before he leaves office – and should persuade other world leaders to do the same.

The president must also give teeth to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the basic law governing fishing in federal waters. Congress re- authorized and strengthened the law in 2006, establishing more ambitious timetables for rebuilding depleted fish species and giving scientists greater say over how many fish can be taken from the sea.

For its part, Congress must give ocean issues greater priority, in part by reorganizing the way the federal government deals with them.

America’s waters are managed under 140 different laws spread across 20 different government agencies. A bill known as Oceans 21 seeks to bring order out of chaos and give ocean protection the prominence it deserves.

The bill is gaining traction in the House but could use a strong push from Senate Democrats and the White House.

Many experts believe that the biggest long-term threat to the oceans may be global warming, which could disrupt ocean chemistry in ways that cause havoc with the food chain.

The science on this issue is still unclear, however, and in any case, global warming is best addressed in broad legislation like the climate change bill now before the Senate.

In the meantime, there is much that Washington can do to strengthen the resilience of the ocean and its inhabitants so they can withstand whatever stresses the future may bring.