Bush’s Happy Oceans
January 4th, 2005
By David Helvarg
The horrific disaster from the Asian Tsunamis reflects the power of nature and the sea that we, as terrestrial beings on a water planet must endure. But it also highlights the dangers posed by overbuilt coastlines and lack of science-based warning systems that led Admiral James Watkins, Chair of the US Commission on Ocean policy to warn, “There’s a 9-11 in the oceans waiting to happen if we let it.” Unfortunately when it comes to America’s own coasts and oceans the Bush administration seems willing to let it.
Following on environmentally destructive policies named Healthy Forests and Clear Skies, the Bush administration’s new ‘Ocean Action Plan’ could as easily be labelled, “Happy Oceans.”
With its claim that its “building on previous successes,” its call for privatizing America’s fisheries, and rejection of needed funding, the December 18 presidential order setting up a cabinet-level ocean committee seems more a repudiation than an embrace of the Bush-appointed US Commission on Ocean Policy.
That commission, which included admirals and oilmen, spent close to three years conducting public hearings throughout the nation, before issuing a final report this fall that included more than 200 recommendations for change. It proved remarkably similar to a report put out in 2003 by the independent Pew Oceans Commission, a group perceived to be more environmentally friendly. Both identified the collapse of marine ecosystems as a major threat to the U.S. economy, environment and security and called for a radical new approach to ocean governance.
Their sense of urgency reflects the fact that our oceans are facing a cascading series of disasters including overfishing for the global seafood market, nutrient poisoning from urban and agricultural runoff, coastal sprawl that’s destroying the wetland nurseries and filters of the sea, and fossil-fuel fired climate-change that’s raising sea-levels, eroding beaches, intensifying hurricanes and killing coral.
In response the administration has established a cabinet committee to be coordinated by Jim Connaughton, head of the Council on Environmental Quality. An affable snorkeler and scuba diver, Connaughton is also a former mining lobbyist responsible for stripping references to global warming impacts from a major EPA report. In a press briefing he promised $2.7 million in new funding for coral reef protection. This will hardly balance Congress’s nearly $250 million in cuts for federal Clean Water allocations to the states. In states like Florida and Hawaii nutrient runoff from leaking sewer pipes, storm drains and other infrastructure that could have been fixed with those funds will instead generate algae blooms that smoother coral reefs.
Connaughton also spoke of nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers and pesticides that create massive algae blooms and an 8,000 square mile Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico every year. He claimed that, “new Farm Bill conservation programs are… addressing that issue by providing incentives to farmers to essentially halt the run-off.”
Unfortunately the Republican congress keeps cutting this $2.2 billion conservation program in favor of other subsidies like the huge commodity subsidies that favor the top 10 percent of farm producers. Conservation funding by contrast helps mainly small family farmers. In 2003 75 percent of farmers seeking conservation assistance were turned down by the Department of Agriculture. This past year only 18 watersheds and 2,200 farmers nationwide received conservation funding support.
Just as the government encouraged many family farmers to buy new combines and expand their acreage in the 1970s, the 1980s saw a range of government subsidies that allowed commercial fishermen to upgrade and expand their fleets leading to a fishing boom and resource bust. Today there are too many (or too large) boats catching fish faster than they can reproduce. Exacerbating this problem are the eight regional fisheries councils that set U.S. catch quotas in federal waters 3-200 miles offshore. These are the only federal regulatory bodies exempted from conflict-of-interest laws. As a result they are dominated by fishing industry interests that have generated serial fishery collapses (New England Cod in the 1990s, West Coast Rockfish today). Both the U.S. Commission and Pew Oceans Commission have proposed reforming this system by allowing catch quotas to be set by scientists rather than industry.
Instead, the administration wants to work with the Councils to move towards a system of private ownership of the fisheries through ITQs, or Individual Transferable Quotas. Under this system a fishing license becomes an ownership deed to a given share of the fish stock. Many ocean advocates, including small boat fishermen worry this will encourage corporate consolidation and the giveaway of a public resource.
The administration has also stated it has no interest in giving the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead civilian agency for the oceans, greater autonomy within the trade-driven Department of Commerce (as proposed by the Ocean Commission), or creating an independent ocean agency (as recommended by the Pew Commission).
The Ocean Commission also proposed a $4 billion annual trust fund to be taken from offshore oil revenues. Some environmental groups worry this will create incentives for more drilling, but their concerns are now moot since the administration has rejected the trust fund idea, saying it will set its own budget priorities (at much lower levels).
The White House has also pledged to push for Senate ratification of the Law of the Seas convention, signed by President Clinton over ten years ago. A comprehensive ocean governance treaty endorsed by environmentalists, the oil industry and the Department of Defense, it can be expected to pass with at least 90 votes whenever Senate Majority leader Frist releases his hold on it. Anti-UN elements have been lobbying Congress claiming LOS represents a threat to U.S. Sovereignty. Connaughton says the administration is working to convince these “conservatives” that the treaty is a good thing, suggesting the White House has given a veto to the far-right.
During its first term the Bush administration tried to relabel dolphin-safe tuna to include the deadly encircling nets that first prompted the labeling, got NOAA to give a permit to the Navy that would allow them to kill up to 12 percent of all marine mammals with their sonar systems, argued in court that the National Environmental Policy Act (that requires environmental impact statements) doesn’t apply in the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, rejected EPA oversight of nutrient pollution reduction, and promoted a range of subsidies for offshore oil development.
While touting its new Ocean Action Plan the administration and its supporters on the Hill are now promoting – a new EPA rule that will allow municipalities to bypass secondary treatment for their bacteria laden sewage wastes during rain storms, giving NOAA permitting authority for giant open ocean fish farms (what some critics are calling ‘Blue Feedlots’) and opening up protected offshore areas to new energy “surveys” for oil and gas.
In response to two clarion calls for reform and restoration of America’s coastal watersheds, shores and oceans the administration is packaging the status quo as an action plan while seeking to privatize America’s last great wilderness commons. Those of us who gets so much from the oceans in terms of recreation, transportation, trade, energy, protein and wonder can’t let this pass. A seaweed (marine grassroots) rebellion of surfers, sailors, fishermen, coastal residents, ocean-dependent businesses and other concerned citizens can still turn the tide. It’s happening in California and Massachusetts (under Republican Governors) where major ocean reform initiatives are now under way. Similar efforts have also begun in Maine and Florida.
With the reports of two historic ocean commissions now providing a roadmap – or navigation chart – for sensible reform it’s still possible to mobilize the popular will needed to protect our seas and put the blue back in our red, white and blue.