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Bush Forms Panel to Coordinate Ocean Policy
December 18, 2004 - New York Times

by Cornelia Dean

In response to a gloomy assessment of the state of the nation's coastal waters, President Bush yesterday ordered the creation of a new federal panel to coordinate oceanic policy.

James L. Connaughton, who as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality will head the new committee, said that among its early goals would be to expand the use of fishing quotas "in appropriate settings" and to win ratification of the Law of the Sea, the international regulatory system that the Bush administration favors but that the Senate has long refused to endorse.

The steps were in response to a report issued in April by the United States Commission on Ocean Policy. The report said government action was needed to curb overfishing that has sharply depleted the world's fish stocks, combat widespread pollution from nutrient-rich runoff in coastal waters and better coordinate what is widely regarded as a complicated and inefficient regulatory system.

Another report, released this year by the Pew Oceans Commission, a private group, drew similar conclusions.
Mr. Connaughton said the new committee would move quickly to consider the recommendations of the government report. "We will fully embrace most," he predicted. "We will modify some and some we may disagree with, but we'll see when we get there."

Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, said formal ratification of the Law of the Sea, an international treaty governing navigation, fishing and other oceanic issues, would be an important step. But she said she was disappointed that Mr. Bush's executive order did not press other actions to address coastal issues.

"There is no shortage of recommendations for action," Ms. Pikitch said in an interview. "There were two reports, and in many areas they agree. This order leaves all that up in the air. The response to two reports recommending concrete changes has led to the development of another committee that will make its own recommendations."

In an interview, Mr. Connaughton said the new committee would "upgrade and expand" an existing White House panel on ocean science and create a panel on ocean resource management. He said the two groups would draw on the resources of several cabinet departments to offer guidance and recommendations on ocean policy.

As an example, he cited the problem of pollution that does not emanate from a single identifiable source, like the nitrogen-rich runoff from farms. To form recommendations, Mr. Connaughton said, "we can take the combination of farm bill conservation programs that encourage farmers to reduce nitrogen use, in conjunction with good old-fashioned E.P.A. regulations, in conjunction with Army Corps of Engineers management of river systems and actions the states do on the coastal level."

Mr. Connaughton said the new committee would consider how uses of coastal areas should be regulated, not just for oil and gas drilling but also for an array of activities, like a wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, south of Cape Cod. In many areas, he said, "there's not a clear process for regulation."

Mr. Connaughton also said the panel would promote individual fishing quotas, which typically restrict who may fish commercially. Such a system encourages fishermen to preserve stocks and report violations, he said.

He also said he was hopeful that Senate opposition to the Law of the Sea could be overcome. There is "a huge area of common ground and consensus" on ocean problems, Mr. Connaughton said, adding, "Here's where I am confident - as long as we can focus on the problem, we can find consensus on the solution."

Read the article on the New York Times Web site.

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