Oceans in Peril

Monday, January 23, 2006

THE BUSH administration remains in denial about climate change and sometimes treats environmental protection as an inconvenience. Yet there was reason to hope, when the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy issued its report more than a year ago, that President Bush would seize the issue of the dire threat to this country's coastal waters. The commission was the second major task force in recent years to detail the rapidly deteriorating ecology of America's oceans. All serious looks at the issue have reached similar conclusions: that current human use of oceans is unsustainable and that without dramatic changes in the ways the waters are exploited and enjoyed, the seas will die out. The magnitude of the crisis offers an opportunity for the president to lead on a preeminent environmental issue.

So far, it is an opportunity Mr. Bush has largely passed up. To be sure, there have been some constructive changes. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is pushing legislation to improve fisheries management. Regional fisheries managers have acted to protect deep sea corals. And, explains James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Policy, the president has moved to improve coordination on ocean-related policy by the many agencies of government that have jurisdiction over aspects of the problem, a key commission concern. The administration is developing a long-term research plan and is planning to protect a large area around some Hawaiian islands as a marine sanctuary. All of this is promising -- though a big test will come when the administration has to propose funding for oceans research in its coming budget.

Still, there is little sense of urgency about a problem the oceans commission described in stark terms: Americans, the report warns, are "starting to love our oceans to death." If that is to be averted, "reform needs to start now, while it is still possible to reverse distressing declines." Mr. Connaughton says Mr. Bush is deeply committed to the problem. Yet the president himself does not talk about it.

Tackling this meaningfully is going to require regulatory initiatives across a range of areas: pollution, runoff, development, environmentally harmful farming practices and others, requiring substantial sums. None of this is possible without sustained and vocal presidential leadership. Ecosystems are at a tipping point, verging on a collapse from which they won't recover. The stakes are as immense as the oceans, which will not wait for the White House to gear up to save them.

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