OVER THE PAST year and a half, two blue-ribbon panels -- the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy -- have put together major reports on the state of America's coastal waters. The reports, broadly speaking, agree on a depressing reality: This country's oceans are in trouble and absent dramatic policy changes will be irreversibly damaged. Both groups make extensive recommendations for averting such a catastrophe, which would both devastate major economic interests and constitute a fundamental betrayal of society's stewardship of its natural treasures. Over the past century this country has developed a commitment to preserving forest and desert wilderness, protecting air quality and safeguarding land-based species. The message of the two commissions is that policymakers must show a similar commitment to America's territorial waters, which comprise an area larger than the land mass of the United States.

Fortunately, some policymakers are stepping up to the plate. In the wake of the reports, legislation has been introduced in Congress to begin implementing their recom- mendations. Two bills are particularly important. The first is the "Oceans 21" bill introduced by the bipartisan co-chairs of the Oceans Caucus in the House of Representatives (Republicans James C. Greenwood and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Democrats Sam Farr of California and Tom Allen of Maine). The bill seeks to implement many of the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, whose final report relating to governance of oceans issues will be delivered soon. Federal authority over oceans is a regulatory mishmash. The bill would set, for the first time, clear national policy on the subject and endow federal institutions with the power to implement it, focusing not on individual species or isolated environmental problems but on oceanic ecosystems.

The second is legislation introduced by Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Mr. Farr to reform the regional management councils that determine how many fish can be taken from American waters and who gets what portion of the allowable catch. Some of these councils are more effective than others in protecting habitats, but the councils tend to be dominated by fishing interests. Their members are not bound by normal conflict-of-interest rules, and they do not always follow scientific analyses in setting limits. The bill would begin correcting these problems. Most important, it would tether conservation decisions more closely to the best available science regarding ecosystem health and separate these conservation decisions from those about allocating the catch.

President Bush, who has been largely silent on the subject, is obliged by law to respond to the Ocean Commission report. He should treat these issues with a seriousness he has not often shown on environmental matters. The threat to the oceans -- and to countless species threatened by overfishing, pollution, nutrient and chemical runoff, and invasive species -- represents one of the most pressing ecological crises of our time. It cannot wait much longer for leadership.